Operations

4 COVID-19 takeaways from a recent healthcare panel

Hospital staff member cleaning table
Photograph: Shutterstock

The International Foodservice Manufacturers Association (IFMA) hosted a healthcare foodservice panel last month to offer insight as to how healthcare operators are faring during the pandemic. During the virtual event, panelists talked about the successes and challenges they’ve faced during COVID-19 and how they see the pandemic impacting their operations in the years to come. Here are several takeaways from the discussion. 

1. Cleanliness will remain front and center

Cleanliness and sanitation have gained much of the spotlight during the pandemic and will stay top of mind into the future, says Julie Meddles, director of nutrition services at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center (OSU Wexner) in Columbus, Ohio. Along with having staff visibly wipe down tables and chairs in front of guests, the dining team has started allowing customers to clean their own tables as an added measure.  

OSU Wexner is also building extra sanitation practices into the design plans of its new hospital and three ambulatory sites with cafes. “My big thing is I want to have a hand-washing sink somewhere in [the dining room and cafe],” says Meddles. “Not just sanitizer, but somewhere somebody can wash their hands before they eat.”

2. Labor workarounds are plentiful

Reduced labor was something that every panelist said they are currently battling. Martha Rardin, director of nutrition and dietetics at Hendricks Regional Health in Danville, Ind., thinks that labor shortages are here to stay, at least for the immediate future.  

“I have seen a little bit of even a reluctance from candidates to work in healthcare because of the virus, and I would have expected our doors would have been knocked down with all the people that are out of work, but that's not the case,” she says. “And so, labor continues to be a problem.”

One way Centra Health in Lynchburg, Va., is dealing with reduced staff is by looking at menu items that can be prepared using fewer people, says Director of Nutrition Services Tim Schoonmaker: “One of the things we look at is the grab-and-go salads and that stuff that's already prepared because, honestly, that's one of your areas that you pull from if you're short staffed …  because it's something you can do easily as a manager if you have to jump in somewhere, or you can just show somebody how to assemble things.”

3. Grab-and-go isn’t going anywhere 

During the pandemic, OSU Wexner implemented grab-and-go markets to allow staff to pick up needed groceries before heading home. The markets have been a big hit, Meddles says, and will likely continue. “I can't tell you how many emails I've gotten that have said, ‘I'm so glad I didn't have to make another stop at the grocery store after I worked a 12-hour shift,’” she says.

4. Sustainability expectations will return 

While single-use plastics and other disposables have become popular during the pandemic due to health and safety concerns, Rardin believes that it’s only a matter of time before customers will pressure hospitals to look at options that are both sustainable and safe. “Customers are just dealing with it right now,” she says. “They're being patient with us, but I don't expect that to last.”

While using fewer disposables remains a challenge during the pandemic, Schoonmaker is looking at other areas of sustainability that Centra Health can improve on, such as local sourcing, outdoor gardening and hydroponic farms. “I look at [sustainability] not just in terms of disposables but also other objectives,” he says.

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