Switching to a pod system in the age of COVID

A Pittsburgh hospital is experiencing higher satisfaction and fewer errors in patient feeding after revamping its trayline.
pod system at hospital
Photo courtesy of St. Clair Hospital

St. Clair Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pa., switched its trayline to a pod system in February, and the change has improved holding temperatures, staff timing and patient satisfaction.

Each pod is made up of four mini traylines, each of which accommodates one concierge, who builds the trays and then delivers them to patients. This requires two fewer full-time equivalent staff than the previous setup, so some employees have been redistributed, though none lost, says Emily Guidash, general manager with Cura Hospitality, part of the Elior North America family of companies. 

“Before, it was very labor intensive and supervisors weren’t really supervising the tray line,” Guidash says. “Now, the supervisors check every tray, and they’re really cheerleaders and making sure employees are doing what they should be and helping them grab items, so we have better efficiencies to serve patients faster.”

The concierges are each responsible for the same hospital units and the same patients every day, giving the patients consistency, allowing for some relationship building and enabling concierges to help with special diets or preferences. “They’re seeing the patients four times a day for food selection and delivery and input their choices on an iPad,” Guidash says. “That same concierge then builds the patients’ trays and delivers them.” Each concierge is now responsible for around 35 patients—almost half of the former 60. 

The new system is also leading to fewer errors for the approximately 600 daily meals served, she says. To take orders, concierges use iPads, which also print dietary preferences on their tickets, so the combination of these reduces mistakes.

Employees are, for the most part, happier now, since their work is more varied, they have ownership of the trays, and they can build relationships with patients. However, “there’s still a lot of learning and development,” she says.

Training for the pods was gradual. Guidash would have liked to take field trips to other hospitals employing pod systems, but couldn’t, due to COVID. Instead, she used photos from other locations to show employees how the pods worked and talk through what to expect. When the time came to switch over, “we turned the kitchen overnight during a weekend in February, so training was essentially on the job,” she says. “We adjusted job flows as we went.” 

The time needed to deliver food has decreased since the shift to pods. The trayline used to take about 90 minutes per mealtime, and now it’s down to closer to 80, Guidash says. And hot food temperatures have gone up: Eggs have risen by 28.2 degrees and vegetables by 13.5 degrees.

“Part of our quality assurance programming is test trays—we do cart checks to make sure they’re accurate,” Guidash says. 

St. Clair has also purchased new equipment to run the pods: coffee stations, four air curtain coolers; three steam tables; work stations so everything from coffee to condiments is at concierges’ fingertips; and base warmers and dome lids for trays.

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