Helping Patients Through Personalized Menus in Hospitals

By: Michael Engle

It is common for hospitals to trumpet "individualized care" for their patients, so that the patients may feel confident in their respective treatments. This is a necessary and proper mission, as doctors need an encyclopedic knowledge of symptoms, diseases, and treatments, while acknowledging that no two patients are identical. Considering the wide range of illnesses seen in hospitals, as well as the infinite treatment plans and post-op lifestyle changes, how would a hospital's food service survive as a fixed-concept restaurant? As recent trends and common sense both suggest, a rigid menu is paradoxical to hospitals' missions. Dawn Fallik, for The Wall Street Journal, outlined this transformation within the food service-at-health care industry, as hospital cafeterias are becoming more like, well, restaurants.

With respect to post-operative meal plans, patients not only have nutritional guidelines, e.g.: cancer patients are not allowed fresh herbs or raw vegetables due to bacterial concerns, but cravings that arise out of human nature and necessity. In Lance Armstrong's autobiography It's Not About the Bike, Armstrong recalled that despite his strict diet during chemotherapy, he had to make an exception for his hospital's apple fritters, as they were, at times, the only food items that could soothe Armstrong's stomach. More recently, an anonymous teenage cancer patient, who is referenced in Fallik's story, found that her taste buds were so severely weakened during her treatment, that the only flavor she could taste was lemon. As a result, the culinary staff at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, led by executive chef Pnina Peled, created a lemon alfredo pizza.  This allowed the patient to eat the Italian food she desired, while incorporating enough lemons to provide some gastronomical satisfaction. Meanwhile, due to sufficient demand for anything "strong--sweet, spicy, or acidic--just so they can taste it," Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center, now features Flamin' Hot Cheetos on its menu.

Incredibly, this new "custom" approach to hospital dining is not significantly more expensive than the status quo. Though certain fresh ingredients are more expensive, hospitals adapt by having less overhead. "Although we reinvented the menu, the trade off is that we saw a significant reduction in food waste," according to Veronica McLymont, director of food and nutrition services at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. "Patients now order what they want to eat, when they are ready to eat," she says. In fact, patients are able to order food at any time (until 9 P.M. each day) for on-call service, instead of having to request the next day's meals by the prior evening. These developments certainly represent a boom for health care satisfaction, as well as patients' nutrition. After all, if you're forced to call 911 instead of your favorite restaurant's reservation hotline, why not have quality food made especially with your dietary needs in mind?

Photo: Micah Sittig

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