A growing number of hospitals in the United States are moving to hotel-style room service for patients.
"I think people have that perception before they even come into the hospital, 'Oh it's hospital food. I know it's going to be bad,"' said Mary Ann Moser, director of food and nutrition services for Medical City Dallas Hospital, which recently began its new food service.
The hospital serves about 350 meals each breakfast, lunch and dinner. Patients can call from 6:45 a.m. to 7 p.m. to place orders for food that is prepared fresh and delivered to their rooms within 45 minutes.
"Patient satisfaction was really a key for us," Moser said.
Trying to lure patients and keep them happy in a competitive market is what inspired hospitals across the country to start banishing bland food served at set times.
"It's kind of a trend of placing the patient in the center of what a hospital does," said Alicia Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the American Hospital Association. "This is one example of a hospital offering more choice."
The National Society for Health Care Food Service Management is surveying hospitals to find out how many now offer menu or gourmet service, said Mike Giuffrida, chief executive for the Washington-based trade group.
He said the trend began about seven years ago, but in the last 18 months "it's become an absolute avalanche."
At Medical City, there is no extra charge to the patient for the improved food. Hospital officials say there are savings by having less wasted food and their hope is to entice visitors to eat there, too. They would be paying customers.
Patients may choose from 22 different menus that cater to everyone from diabetics and children to cardiac and gastric bypass patients.
"We had one patient call that said that it was some of the best food they'd ever tasted," Moser said. "And it made their experience much better in the hospital."
That's exactly what chef Kenneth Furtado wants to hear. "I really want them to feel like they are in a five-star hotel," he said.
The selection at Medical City inspired Brian Matlock, 25, to join his wife for lunch in her hospital room the day after she gave birth to their daughter.
"He definitely wasn't interested in what I had yesterday," said Mindy Matlock, 24, whose stay overlapped with Medical City's switch to the new menu service. The first day Matlock had cold sandwiches.
The next day she and her husband enjoyed chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and a rich piece of chocolate cake.
The hospital's old system, know as "cook-chill," meant dishes such as chicken, rice and vegetables were prepared, frozen and then warmed up, limiting the variety and time frame for serving.
Freshly prepared food not only tastes better, but also could help speed recovery because a patient may eat sooner and gain more strength.
Cancer patients often have a loss of appetite or changes to their sense of taste and smell because of radiation or chemotherapy, said Carol Frankmann, director for clinical nutrition at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. When her hospital began offering a menu service in 2000, doctors and nurses noticed an immediate difference.
"One of the things that was observed immediately was that the trays came out of the room empty," Frankmann said. "Because our patients are ordering what they want at the moment, they're generally eating all of it."
At Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, patients began getting gourmet service in 2002. Offerings such as crab cakes, New York strip steak and veggie quesadillas have been a hit, said Sharon Cox, director of food and nutrition services.
Dee Maggio, a cancer patient at Medical City, has enjoyed the freedom the menu service offers. On one day, after a big breakfast of cream of wheat and an egg-white omelet, she decided she wouldn't have her next meal until later that afternoon.
"It's kind of like being spoiled," said Maggio, 58.
By Jamie Stengle