PeaceHealth dishes up Room Service at Bellingham hospital

Patient Paul Holtorf gets his lunch delivered in his room at St. Joseph hospital by food service assistant Brehana Schroyer in Bellingham, Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. In April, the hospital started a new program called Room Service that allows patients to order their meals off a menu.
Patient Paul Holtorf gets his lunch delivered in his room at St. Joseph hospital by food service assistant Brehana Schroyer in Bellingham, Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. In April, the hospital started a new program called Room Service that allows patients to order their meals off a menu. The Bellingham Herald

Sitting in his hospital room, Paul Holtorf paused before biting into half of a lightly grilled BLT to talk about his lunch with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for a favorite eatery.

“It’s very lean and cooked to perfection,” Holtorf said, pointing to the pork bacon inside his favorite sandwich before praising the freshness of the lettuce and tomato.

The Blakely Island resident was at St. Joseph hospital in Bellingham. His lunch included coffee, cream of mushroom soup, and cubes of pineapple.

“Look at it. The quality and the temperatures — everything,” said Holtorf, who described himself as being picky.

He ordered his meal using Room Service, a restaurant-style approach to feeding patients that the Bellingham hospital switched to in April with the help of Thomas Cuisine Management.

Room Service allows patients to order what they want for breakfast, lunch and dinner from a menu. There’s some flexibility for when they eat their meals, and they order the portions they prefer.

A host, more like a waiter or waitress, takes their order on an iPad that also contains detailed nutritional information, for example, for patients on a heart-healthy or a carbohydrate-controlled diet.

“We can work with them at the bedside and find what meal works best for them,” said Anna Drost, a registered dietitian who also is the Patient Services manager.

That order then goes to the kitchen, where it’s made to order by cooks like Linh Nguyen and Dean Conley. One recent day, they were making a chicken breast stir-fry with teriyaki sauce.

“We have a wide variety on our menu as well, all scratch-prepared, which is a bonus,” Drost said.

Other menu items included huevos rancheros for breakfast, strawberry and spinach salad with toasted almonds for lunch, and grilled salmon with olive oil, cracked pepper and sea salt for dinner. Ice cream, lemon cake and cookies were among the choices for dessert.

“They’re excited to be able to order off this menu,” said Angie Hahn, director of Food and Nutrition Services at the Bellingham hospital.

The salmon and the strawberry salad are among the favorites for patients, Hahn said.

Before Room Service, patients didn’t have much of a choice. Breakfast would mean a full tray of food that included milk, fruit, French toast, scrambled eggs and bacon. It didn’t matter if a patient didn’t like milk or maybe wanted something lighter like oatmeal, a banana, and herbal tea.

So patients wouldn’t be able to eat all the food because there was too much of it, or they sent away their tray and asked for something else.

“You can customize it and not waste any food,” Hahn said.

Patients like having a choice and they like the food, the PeaceHealth representatives said. That means less of the food goes to waste, which is expected to save PeaceHealth about $60,000 a year, Hahn said.

The service also helps hospitals by allowing nurses to focus on medical service instead of food service.

“The ‘room service’ idea is in various stages throughout PeaceHealth. A sister hospital in Longview has been doing a version of this for years, while a couple of other medical centers are apparently gearing up to deliver their own versions,” PeaceHealth spokeswoman Amy Cloud said.

PeaceHealth isn’t alone in providing the service, which has been referred to as a hotel-style approach. Other hospitals in Washington state do, too. Some of them have for years.

Swedish, in the greater Seattle area, has been offering “room service” since 1997, saying it was the first in the state to do so on a larger scale. Others are Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles, Valley Medical Center in Renton, EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, and Lincoln Hospital in Davenport.

Doing so helps ease patients, according to Chuck Zielinski, director of Food and Nutrition for the University of Washington Medical Center.

“Patients come to a hospital and they have no control,” Zielinski said. “Room service gives you a little control over something.”

UW Medical Center has been offering the service since 2007, evolving its food choices to include meat free of antibiotics over concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacteria. All four of its hospitals feed patients this way.

It’s unknown how many hospitals are offering the service, but Zielinski called it “the No. 1 trend in our industry.”

“I would say about 50 percent of all hospitals across the country have room service or are aggressively moving toward it,” he said.

Descriptions on some menus, including a hospital’s approach to food, read like they were written for die-hard foodies instead of as punchlines for comedians.

At Seattle Children’s, a blog post references cage-free and antibiotic-free eggs, grass-fed beef, house-made marinara sauce, and sweet potato and caramelized onion quesadilla.

“It’s become much more popular across the country. Hospitals have looked for ways to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. It was a joke about hospital food all the time, and so what they’re trying to do is bring it up to the next level,” said Jim Cooper, vice president of business development for Thomas Cuisine Management in Idaho.

“It’s a better way to take care of their patients,” Cooper added.

And it increases customer satisfaction, as shown by third-party surveys of patient experience conducted by firms Press Ganey, Avatar, and NRC Picker.

“Almost a guarantee. It’s a huge satisfier,” Zielinksi said. “I think it goes back to that control thing.”

Making patients happy has become more important since Medicare, as part of Obamacare, began paying hospitals based in part on the scores they get on patient-satisfaction surveys, Kaiser Health News and USA Today reported.

The federal surveys don’t ask about hospital food, but some in the industry believe that food affects overall satisfaction scores. And those scores are available to the public.

“The shift moved over to patient satisfaction,” Zielinski said. “With that, room service was a natural evolution of the service.”

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.