From ordering and inventory to waste reduction and customer service, technology is helping healthcare food service departments operate more efficiently and effectively.
While the specific tools in use vary from one operation to the next, most operators agree that technology is a good thing: 89 percent of hospital-based respondents to a 2013 Foodservice Director survey agreed with the statement that, “Technology has made a positive impact on my foodservice department.”
Healthcare food service operators have tended to adopt new technologies earlier and to a greater degree than other food service segments. The needs of a typical hospital or senior-living community can be complex when it comes to managing medically-prescribed diets, multiple delivery mechanisms, mandated reporting functions, and more. The medical profession is oriented around technology. And, even though healthcare budgets are increasingly tight, food service directors (and technology vendors) have done an excellent job of demonstrating the return on investment (ROI) of technology purchases.
Still, many healthcare facilities have yet to tap into the full potential of food service technology to increase quality of care, save time, and reduce costs. Moving forward, technology is vital to meeting new guidelines for improving coordination of care between internal departments (including food and nutrition services) and external providers.
Integrating different technology systems—such as ADT (Admissions, Discharges, and Transfers) with EHR (Electronic Health Records)—will be a challenge that will touch on virtually every area of a facility, food service included.
The following is a brief overview of the technologies that are important to healthcare food service today.
Over the years, healthcare food service has helped drive the extensive use of such technologies as cook-freeze/cook-chill, microwave, combi-oven, and induction cooking. Today, much of the innovation centers online- cooking technologies, as both hospitals and senior-living communities increasingly emphasize fresh, made-for-you display cooking. Line cooking not only improves customer perception of food quality but also can reduce labor, since it basically combines the jobs of chef and server into one.
Ventless cooking equipment is an essential enabler of this trend, as ovens, cooktops, and fryers no longer need to be attached to a conventional exhaust system.
New ordering technologies are all about user convenience. The ordering system from Gordon Food Service, for example, enables users to order via smartphone and tablet, in addition to desktop and laptop computers. Order guides are preloaded into the system, and users also can create customized ordering lists to speed up the process even more. The system accommodates multiple users in a single operation, includes product descriptions and nutrition information, and supports electronic invoicing and payment. Orders can be placed anytime, day or night.
Mobile technologies also are revolutionizing the way customers order meals. For facilities offering room service, tablet-based order solutions that wirelessly transmit orders from the patient’s room to the kitchen save time, reduce entry errors, and help effectively track allergy and diet restrictions, similar to CBORD’s Room Service Choice™ program. Room Service Choice™ is a Web-based mobile meal ordering application.
Easy-to-use software programs like Cycle Menu Management from Gordon Food Service help operators meet nutrition requirements and cost goals for individual items, recipes, and menus. The program also provides sample cycle menus and a full database of standardized recipes with HACCP directions. All of it integrates with the GFS Experience Web portal to generate shopping lists based on your menus and to make electronic ordering easier.Users report increased patient and resident satisfaction along with saving more than $10,000 a year.
Such programs provide accurate and easily available nutrition information enabling operators to share the numbers with their customers via printed menus, signs, and/or online applications. Software systems can also track patients, providing immediate access to diet restrictions, allergy information, and patient likes and dislikes; allowing patient bedside screening and menu selections; tracking and reporting patient weight gain and loss; and more.
Waste is a huge issue in healthcare. The Healthier Hospitals Initiative, a partnership of Health Care Without Harm, the Center for Health Design, Practice Greenhealth, and 13 of the largest, most influential U.S. health systems, reports that hospitals and health systems in the U.S. produce 11,700 tons of waste each day. (Not all of that is generated in kitchens and cafeterias, but discarded food does add up.)
Companies like LeanPath, a food-waste-tracking consultancy, are using technology to help foodservice operations measure all the food discarded each day. The LeanPath system uses measuring equipment like scales, cameras, and touch screens, to record items as they’re being disposed of and analyzes the data for staff to review, thereby focusing them on waste prevention. LeanPath users claim a savings of 2 to 4 percent on food purchases.
Additional sustainability goals can be addressed with such programs as NearBuy from Gordon Food Service. This vendor-supplied product database identifies the corporate location, manufacturing location, and key-ingredient source for many products offered by the company. Customers can thus make purchasing decisions based on such sustainability factors as local sourcing, local production, and community economic impact.
Automated inventory management can facilitate sustainability, as it helps reduce waste and spoilage, two “hidden” food costs that, along with overstocking and theft, can seriously impede cash flow.
Inventory Manager from Gordon Food Service reduces these costs by enabling users to set up and maintain an easy, consistent inventory system that supports physical inventory counts by smartphone or tablet. The system integrates with the GFS Experience ordering, Recipe Manager, food cost reviews, and invoice systems. It even incorporates outside distributors for a complete inventory solution.
Other emerging foodservice technologies include “talking menus” for the visually impaired, robots to assist disabled patients with eating, and “e-training” apps for efficiently teaching employees new practices and procedures.
Beyond foodservice, technology employed in almost every area of the hospital and senior-living community helps facilities become even more patient-centric.
Here are just a few examples:
One of the biggest challenges to implementing new technologies is privacy protection. Technology makes it easier to share information among medical professionals who need it, but that ease also can increase the risk of unauthorized access. Just as doctors and nurses must follow certain protocols to minimize data breaches, so should foodservice departments develop procedures that help their organizations maintain compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
The other major challenge is cost. Even if ROI can be verified in advance, administrators may be reluctant to make the initial outlays required, since it can be difficult to justify additional expenses for technology from budgets that are tightening.
The bottom line? New technologies have much to offer all areas of healthcare, including foodservice. While healthcare foodservice operators have long embraced new technologies to better serve patients and residents, advances that are coming on fast will require administrators to balance their commitment to customer service with their responsibility to their operation’s bottom line.
Ask your DSR for more information about how you can access exclusive technology solutions and expert advice from Gordon Food Service that can benefit your foodservice operation.