Does hospital food actually suck?

May 18, 2017

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Does hospital food actually suck?

Often the subject of bad press, hospital food is considered by many to be processed, pre-packaged and tasteless with little nutritional value. With such a poor public image, it’s no wonder patients come to our health care facilities expecting the quality and acceptability of their food to be poor.

Cooks in the region looking at a fresh batch of Saskatoon berries just shipped to their kitchen.

“It’s an uphill battle serving meals to people coming to us already having established a distaste for what will be served,” says Stephanie Cook, director of Nutrition and Food Services. “Attempting to change the commonly held belief that hospital food is gross is challenging, particularly when this view is one already shared by many of the folks who work here.”

In fact, try asking a nurse, environmental service worker or any other health care worker what they think about the food and you are likely to get a less than favourable report.  But, is it really that bad?  The department of Nutrition and Food Services has conducted many patient surveys to find that patients are overall quite satisfied with their meals. Despite this, trying to shake the bias that our food sucks has proven to be a tricky venture.  We wondered, is our hospital staff biased themselves without actually knowing how the food tastes?  So we tried something different, something a little bit “tricky.”

This is what we did

As part of a student research project in RQHR’s Nutrition and Dietetic Practicum Program, 57 hospital staff (primarily nurses and care staff) at the Regina General Hospital were asked questions about their perceptions of the food served to patients.  As expected, this group rated the overall quality of the meals as poor, with just nine per cent identifying the meals as looking appetizing and a mere and seven per cent identifying the meals as excellent.

However, in the second part of this study, hospital staff at the Pasqua Hospital was asked to attend a taste trial of what was advertised as “entrees we are considering for the cafeteria.”  In actual fact, these items were six of the entrees currently served each week to our patients at both the PH and RGH.   The food was “disguised” by serving it in bulk heated food containers (rather than on meal trays) where staff was able to self-select their serving.  A total of 327 surveys were collected over three days of taste trials from staff from a diverse range of departments and positions.  Admittedly, the research team had underestimated the power of offering free food, having to race back to the kitchen several times to restock their supply.

Overall, respondents rated the meal items positively with more than half identifying the taste, appearance, smell, healthfulness, and overall quality as either very good or excellent. For two meal items in particular, the harvest chili and Greek pork chop, 97 per cent of respondents rated them as very good or excellent. Furthermore, nearly two out of three respondents said they would purchase the meal they had eaten if it were offered in the cafeteria.

The ultimate goal of this project was to begin to change the story of hospital food and consider the possibility that perhaps our hospital food is actually pretty good and fits with the regions goal of ensuring high quality, safe patient care.  Staff plays an important role in influencing patient perceptions. By dispelling these negative stereotypes and replacing them with more positive and accurate views based on experience, the impact on patient meal acceptance could be dramatically improved.  So the next time you hear a wise crack about the food, remember that there is a good chance that you or one of your colleagues said they would purchase that very meal.

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