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Hospital Food Getting Easier to Stomach

April 27, 1993|KATHLEEN DOHENY

It's the food everyone loves to hate.

Especially if their hospital stay is longer than a day or two.

Even pollsters in the business of improving patient satisfaction expect complaints about hospital fare.

"Traditionally, food is one of the things that least satisfies patients," says Mary Malone, spokeswoman for Press, Ganey Associates, a South Bend, Ind., firm that measures the satisfaction of hospitalized consumers.

In its latest survey, patients gave meals 77 points of a possible 100. That doesn't sound too bad, until Malone mentions that it was the rock bottom score, with patients evaluating everything else about their hospitalization more positively.

The good news? Hospital food is getting better, say Malone and others who work in the industry. "In the past, a lot of what you heard was probably correct," says Steven Eisner, administrative director of food and nutrition services for UniHealth America, a network that includes 10 Los Angeles-area hospitals, "but we are working hard to change that perception."

Spurred by competition, new federal regulations (aimed at improving the overall quality of life at hospitals) and a desire to make hospital cooking taste more like home, hospitals are overhauling their menus and listening to patients more. The improvements sometimes demand more ingenuity than money.

Thick Crust or Thin?

Lloyd Delaney got weary of watching visitors to Glendale Memorial Hospital walk across the street to Pizza Hut and return bearing the telltale square boxes. Why not save them the trip? asked Delaney, director of food and nutrition services for the hospital, a facility of UniHealth. Eisner of UniHealth agreed.

Last November, the pizza chain and the health network began a pilot program at Glendale Memorial, and now all 10 hospitals offer it to patients whose doctors don't object. (Pepperoni, vegetarian, supreme and cheese are most popular.)

Other hospitals do likewise, offering homemade or big name pizza.

Looks Are Everything

How a food looks is especially important for patients whose sickness has dulled their appetites. So the fine art of "plate presentation" has assumed major importance in hospital kitchens. At Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, for instance, a standard ham, broccoli and mashed yam meal is dressed up, says Carrie Hornby, director of food and nutrition services. "You eat a lot with your eyes," she says, "so the ham is garnished with fresh pineapple and a cherry tomato. The yams are put in a casserole dish with a little crumb topping or in a patty form."

'Re-Formed' Food

A buzzword in hospital kitchens, this food is ground up into consistencies needed by stroke patients and others who might have difficulty swallowing, and then reshaped into its original state. "The biggest challenge here is meats," says Hornby of Long Beach Memorial Hospital. But she sometimes even adds grill marks to make re-formed pork chops and other meats appear charbroiled.

Ethnic Sensitivity

There is a new sensitivity to the value of ethnic specialties as comfort foods. "We have steamed rice and warm tortillas and salsa at all three meals now," says Hornby of Long Beach Memorial Hospital, whose patient population includes many Asians and Latinos.

Special Needs

Alternative menus for patients with special needs are yet another trend. Jeffrey Nelken, director of food and nutrition services at Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center, worked under the direction of Dr. Avrum Bluming, a hospital oncologist, to develop a special menu for cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, which often robs appetite and nauseates patients.

First, Nelken created a pictorial menu with the 21 meal options illustrated in full color to whet the appetite. He also put the food on smaller plates because a large, full plate "can look overwhelming." He is careful to rinse and cook foods to eliminate odors, such as fish smells, that can make patients queasy. He picks high-calorie, high-protein foods so patients can get adequate nutrients from smaller portions.

Putting On the Ritz

To attract patients, some hospitals are taking a cue from tablecloth-type restaurants and nice hotels. At San Gabriel Valley Medical Center, for instance, patients are offered a second cup of coffee after meals. At Long Beach Memorial, patients admitted between mealtimes can request a special sandwich plate.

Most Like It Hot

Even the tastiest, best-looking food tastes terrible if served at the wrong temperature. To eliminate the chance, new, smarter delivery systems are in place. At Childrens Hospital Los Angeles (which, incidentally, has an on-site McDonald's), a new system reduces the chance that milk will be warm and hot entrees cold, says Linda Brown, manager of food and nutrition services. Foods are prepared ahead of time, then rapidly chilled and assembled on special compartmentalized trays that separate foods to be served warm and foods to be served cold.

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