CATHERINE AUSTIN has energized the foodservice department at the MEMPHIS VA MEDICAL CENTER by:
• FOSTERING an environment for learning by creating an employee computer lab in the kitchen
• ENCOURAGING her staff to take on new projects such as a chef of the month program
• STARTING initiatives such as a dietetic internship program and reworking the ER meal service
• IMPROVING patient satisfaction scores by working on customers service with the department's tray deliverers
Catherine Austin, Memphis VA Medical CenterIn his second Inaugural Address, one month before the Civil War ended, President Abraham Lincoln called on Americans, “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” That phrase, the basis of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ mission statement, is something Catherine Austin, R.D., chief, nutrition and food services for the 270-bed Memphis VA Medical Center, takes to heart.
Austin’s approach to providing the best customer service to the veterans she serves starts with her own staff and making sure they have the best training and opportunities for advancement.
Employees matter: Kimberly Thomas, R.D., clinical specialist dietitian, says, “Ms. Austin encourages her staff to take leadership courses, seminars and attend conferences in order to better themselves. She encourages employees to apply for internal promotions versus hiring candidates from outside. She helps employees develop their career goals and is always willing to listen to new ideas.”
One way Austin helps develop her staff is through the medical center’s educational services, which offers training programs, including a School At Work program that teaches employees basics in math and reading. “We are very dedicated to making sure that our employees are included in classes just like everyone else in the medical center,” Austin says. “In food services you can’t say, ‘I’m going to put this file aside and come back to it in an hour after I finish my class.’”
Austin says she encouraged her employees to participate in these educational opportunities, but no one took advantage of them because they either didn’t want to leave their fellow employees short-staffed or because they were intimidated by the program, particularly computers. To allay that fear, Austin set up an employee computer lab in the kitchen.
Austin says her employees were still hesitant to use the computers. So the department used its high school and college student workers to help Austin’s older employees learn how to use the computers. “[The lab] gave them the skills to do a better job in [food services] and have the skills they need to go outside [the department],” Austin says.
Equipped with computer skills and with Austin’s encouragement, several food services employees are either enrolled or have completed the medical center’s educational classes.
Team building: “To me, this award is really foodservice department of the month because I don’t do anything by myself,” Austin says. “Even if it’s something that only I can do, I will still try to pull someone else in to help me with it or mentor them so that when it’s their turn they can do it.”
Under Austin’s leadership—she has been the chief since 2004—the food services department has implemented many new programs, most of which have been completed under the helm of one of Austin’s dietitians.
“We have a really good department and everyone participates and contributes,” Austin says. “I might have a germ of an idea and throw it out there, and [the staff] runs with it. It’s all about finding the right resources, helping to break down the barriers or challenges and keeping [the staff] positive and focused.”
One of those programs was “chef of the month.” Although the hospital doesn’t yet have a professional chef, Austin decided she would help her cooks get in a chef’s frame of mind by allowing them to be the “chef” of the month. Any food services employee can be the chef. That person is given one day to serve a lunch menu they’ve created. A card with the “chef’s” name, bio, photo and meal explanation is included on each patient tray.
To further the program, Austin wanted to bring in chefs from the community, but she was having a hard time accomplishing that goal. That’s where Thompson came in. Not only does Thompson have a chef’s background, her husband also is a chef. With Thompson’s connection, several chefs, including her husband, have since shared their culinary talents with the hospital and patients.
“The patients really enjoy it because they get a really different meal,” Austin says. “One person served Alaskan salmon. For us, it’s stuff that we couldn’t afford on a cycle menu, but for these special meals it’s been just great.”
Austin plans to hire a chef—she hopes by next year. “When I get my chef, I think we will be the first in the VA to have a chef working in a chef’s position,” she says.
Another project the department started was a dietetic internship program. “We are always looking for interns and there always seems to be a shortage,” Austin says. “We wanted to develop a dietetic internship that would not only serve our VA and the Memphis community but also develop interns that could go to any VA across the country.”
It took six years for Austin and her staff, including Gloria Brien, R.D., who developed the curriculum, to get the program running. The first class of four interns started in February. A second class of eight is now enrolled in the program.
Austin not only wanted to teach interns, she wanted to teach veterans. “Ellen Bosley, national director, nutrition and food services, recognized that we can provide nutrition information, but we needed to give our customers the skills to put that information into action,” she says. All of the VA’s nutrition and food services chiefs were informed by Bosley that they could apply for grant money to start a veterans’ cooking program. The catch: Austin had to get approval from her medical center’s director and fill out the grant’s application in five days. “Both my supervisor and the director were off station, so I had to fill this grant out and email them and try to explain the program over email,” Austin says.
With the money, Austin created a mobile kitchen that mimics a home kitchen. Once again, Austin turned to her dietitians to create the curriculum for the Healthy Teaching Kitchen. “Two dietitians said they were very interested,” she says. “They worked with the other VAs that also got the grant money, exchanged recipes and ideas and what worked well. We are also collecting data and using it as a research study to see if some of these veterans are successful in controlling some of their health issues.”
Patient satisfaction and service: The food services department was consistently being rated high in patient satisfaction, but Austin was challenged by her medical center’s director, Dr. James Robinson, to push her staff even further. “We got a 4.9 out of 5 consistently,” Austin recalls. “Dr. Robinson said, ‘Catherine, that’s not good enough.’” Robinson gave all the managers a book about improving patient satisfaction, and Austin learned from the reading that scripting of food services employees when delivering patient trays was very important in patient satisfaction. Austin reworked the scripting so that her employees would say their names, what they were bringing and also share something about themselves, such as what branch of the military they were in if they served, so that the patient could make a personal connection with the employee.
Since implementing the new scripting, Austin says patient satisfaction has improved.
Another area of service Austin redesigned was service to the emergency room. Austin would receive a list of the patients’ names and the food services department would send a regular meal for each of the listed patients. “Diets were being ordered and we weren’t sure that it was truly the right diet for the patient.”
Now, when a patient comes into the ER, the doctor orders a diet and that order is faxed to the food services department, where it is verified before a meal is prepared and sent to the patient in the ER.
“It’s not rocket science,” Austin says. “I think that in foodservice we sometimes let things go on for so long and they deteriorate until finally one day you go, ‘oh, my gosh what happened?’ It was something that needed to be improved upon.” The new ordering process saves the medical center $42,000 per year.