Northwell food goes from ‘disgusting’ to delicious, patient satisfaction rises from 9th to 90th percentile

Bari Faye Dean

Hospital food has been the butt of jokes forever — at a significant cost to healthcare systems. Long after patients are discharged, they remember their poor experiences three meals a day, often just in time for the Press Ganey survey to arrive in their mailbox.

“Seven years ago, we did a deep dive with patients about their experiences with us. They told us that the care was great. They said our doctors were nice, competent. They felt very good about the nurses. However, the food was so bad that they said they gave us a lower score [on the survey],” Sven Gierlinger, senior vice president and chief experience officer at New Hyde Park, N.Y.-based Northwell Health, told Becker’s.

Those surveys put Northwell in the 9th percentile for mealtime satisfaction in the first quarter of 2016. And, when the letters about the horrible food started coming — to Mr. Gierlinger and President and CEO Michael Dowling — the chief experience officer said he knew it was time to take action. “We were providing all this great care, and the food was messing up our scores. The messages were clear and very loud.”

Fast forward to the first half of 2023

Eight of Northwell’s 21 hospitals are receiving patient satisfaction scores regarding their inpatient culinary experiences in the 90th percentile. In fact, one hospital is in the 99th percentile and two have scored in the 95th to 96th percentile.

Across the health system, the median average sits between the 82nd and 84th percentile. A few hospitals are weighing down the overall average, Mr. Gierlinger said, but he expects that to turn around in the coming months.

What changed?

When former Ritz-Carlton Executive Chef Bruno Tison came on board as corporate executive health and vice president of systems food services six years ago, he was determined to provide hospital patients with a “restaurant-style experience” that featured mouth-watering menu options.

“When I came to Northwell, patients were talking about how disgusting the food was, how unpalatable and visually unappealing it was,” Mr. Tison told Becker’s.

At that time, 80 to 90 percent of the food used in hospitals’ kitchens was frozen, canned or processed. “We really had to change that, and we started to buy everything fresh — vegetables, fruits, proteins — from some of the best vendors in the New York State area,” the chef said.

In addition to banning frozen and canned foods from Northwell’s kitchens — even the freezers were converted to refrigerators — Mr. Tison focused on staffing every Northwell kitchen with top culinary talent.

Patients are now writing comments on surveys such as: “the food is contributing to my healing process,” “I look forward to the food every day” and “I’m not thinking about being in pain” at mealtimes.

“It’s even beyond patient satisfaction,” the chef said. “I think it is part of the care experience they receive at Northwell.”

Great scores, but at what cost?

Full-time employee count is the same, but the salary budget was increased to attract 15 executive chefs from renowned restaurants and hotels. It was a “you get what you pay for scenario,” Mr. Gierlinger said, noting the former chefs were paid far below market rates.

Additionally, the trained chefs can do more with less; there is less food waste and their tricks of the trade — such as allowing vegetables and fruits to ripen before serving — are no-cost ways of making the food taste and look more appealing.

When Mr. Gierling and Mr. Tison speak with leaders from hospitals around the country about Northwell’s decision to take the culinary experience to new heights, some ask if it’s worth investing in the hospital culinary experience when medical care should come first.

“Let’s say it does come first,” Mr. Gierlinger said. “Do you want to allow the second most important thing to spoil the experience of the first? Because that’s what happens; overall patient experience goes down” when hospitals fail to focus on patient experiences with food.

“Food is in the category of ancillary services, and ancillary means that is supporting the main activity,” he said. “And now we’re seeing, from patient feedback, that food is part of the main activity. It’s part of the healing process. So that’s why we’re doing it.”