Healthcare Food Service: Design a Room Service Menu

GFS employees with hard hats and shovels

Three years ago, Paulette Krippel decided to convert her healthcare facility’s food service from traditional tray-delivery to room service. “It’s the up-and-coming thing and we wanted to stay competitive,” says Krippel, Dietary Manager at OSF Saint James-John W. Albrecht Medical Center, a 43-bed critical-care facility in Pontiac, Illinois.

Now she’s glad she made the change. Per-patient meal costs have dropped $2, from $7.50 to about $5.50 , mostly due to less food waste. Another benefit: Because they’re taking orders, not just delivering trays, dietary staffers have more interaction with patients.

As a result of the increased interaction, patient satisfaction scores have soared to 100 percent in some months, up from in the high 70’s or low 80’s before the introduction of room service. “It’s a wonderful system,” Krippel says. “I wish we would have gone to it 10 years ago.”

Patient happiness is probably the biggest reason to switch to room service from the traditional system, under which all patients get the same breakfast, lunch, and dinner (modified for dietary requirements, of course) at the same time every day. Room service, on the other hand, is tailored: Patients can choose their meals from a menu, and meals are delivered when the patients want them.

Adding room service in healthcare foodservice takes some planning and adjustment. Managers have to rethink the menu, retrain staff, purchase new equipment, and sometimes even endure a kitchen remodel to get the service up and running.

Improve Your Facility's Healthcare Food Service

Room Service Menu Planning

The first step: Look at the current menu. Room service signals a shift to patient-centric from facility-centric meal delivery.

The one-meal-fits-all approach will no longer work and the menu must reflect that. Service time is of the essence—most facilities promise meal delivery in 45 or even 30 minutes. Given the time it takes to transport trays to patients from the kitchen, that means a cook-time of about 15 minutes. That, in turn, means that both ready-to-serve and bulk-prepared scratch items can find a place on the new menu.

The key to success? Don’t overload the menu.

Preparing and Redesigning the Kitchen

Often a room-service menu means a remodeled kitchen, especially for older healthcare facilities whose kitchens still have mechanical belt-tray setups.

Management at Troy Beaumont Hospital, a 458-bed community hospital in Troy, Michigan, added room service in 2011 to improve patient satisfaction scores and cut waste, and now delivers 7,350 room-service trays a week.

“We were delivering trays to people not even in their rooms or who didn’t want to eat,” says Director of Nutrition Services Ann Kovl, RD. “Room service was an industry trend; we knew of places that were doing it and they were getting good patient-satisfaction scores.”

She also hired a consultant, Paul Hysen of The Hysen Group in Northville, Michigan, to help with the food service kitchen, which needed a remodel to accommodate room service.

The kitchen’s tray-line system with a mechanical belt was removed. She added a new steam table, plus a makeup tray with wells for pizza and omelet toppings. She also added refrigeration units with air curtains so staff could easily pull and tray items such as milk, juices, salads and fruit cups. Plate heaters, bases, and base warmers completed the kitchen package.

Kovl bought carts with a capacity of 12 trays each to deliver trays to rooms, reserving the older, bigger carts for tray returns (health rules prohibit trays from being delivered to patients and taken from rooms on the same carts). She splurged on new room-service trays with elevated sides and handles that are “kind of cute.”

While Kovl decided to promise food delivery in 45 minutes or less; she says actual wait time is usually 30 minutes. To make good on that promise, she re-engineered the way kitchen staffers prepare trays. In the old system, cooks dished soup and then put the bowls in the window for tray-line assembly; but doing so, the soup got cold. With the new system, tray-line staffers dish their own soup.

Hot food and coffee go on the tray last. When the first tray goes on the delivery cart, a staffer hits a timer; eight minutes later, the cart goes to the floor. That eight-minute limit ensures that food will be delivered at optimum temperature, Kovl says.

Staffing the Call Center

To make sure the call center had the right friendly, efficient staff, Kovl reinterviewed staffers for the positions.

“We wanted people who were customer service-oriented,” she says, explaining that most staffers’ contact with patients was limited to delivering menus. “Now we have the second point of contact—the phone call—which is huge.”

OSF Saint James-John W. Albrecht Medical Center is so small that Krippel cross-trained cooks and diet clerks to answer the phone. Krippel herself will take an order, if necessary, and it’s something she actually likes to do.

“You get a rapport with patients,” she says, adding that she thinks patients enjoy it as well. “They say, ‘Oh, the boss is answering the phone.’”

The bottom line? While implementing room service may necessitate adjustments at your healthcare facility, with a little time and patience, it will turn into an invaluable tool, people will talk about.

Launching Room Service in Your Healthcare Facility: Tips and Advice

Get employee input—and not just dietary. Consulting nursing staff, for instance, helped Krippel figure out the best way to store dirty trays and carts before kitchen staff retrieves them. Nurses store used-tray carts in a utility room.

Conduct thorough run-throughs. Be sure to include practice calls to the call center before making room service live.

Do a lot of homework. Envision what room service would look like in your facility and arrange visits to other hospitals that offer room service.

Be flexible. Listen to the customer, and be flexible about what they want (within confines of their diet prescription, of course).

Stay Connected. It’s important to have constant contact with nursing staff, as patient needs changes over time. A patient who can get a regular diet one day might change to nothing by mouth (NPO) the next.