Every hospital has a shortage of space, and every hospital uses its space to maximum ability to help patients. But the most under utilized space for patient health is the hospital cafeteria. While hospitals have dietitians, which they use to help determine patients nutritional status, I've never seen a hospital use their chef to teach people to cook.
I've had more meals in hospital cafeterias than I care to. In training, living in the hospital for days at a time meant that hospital food was all I had. On days when I operate on patients, the hospital is where I take my lunch. Now, I am on the board of a couple of hospitals and here is what we really face with hospitals: they have no clue about the power of positive teaching and the message of junk food in a place of healing.
The hospital governing board meeting was getting started when a new item was added to the agenda, to make the hospital a junk-food free campus. We had, several years before, and with a lot of work, made the hospital and the campus a tobacco free campus, but it was time to go after the next major killer in America- obesity. You would think this would be a "slam dunk" for the hospital - but it wasn't.
One hospital in Phoenix, Good Samaritan, boasts that it has a physician cafeteria with a wonderful chef who makes their doctors great meals. When the hospital was trying to get me to bring my patients there the "business vice presidents" told me that this was one of the "benefits" of bringing my patients to that hospital. I asked if their chef would be available to come to group meetings with my patients to teach them to cook, or if my patients could meet in that cafeteria and have the chef make food and teach them how to do that. This vice-president looked at me with a blank stare, "I have never once been asked that."
On the very ill patients hospitals are great at getting dietitians involved to help sort out the therapy they need for feeding patients through an iv, or through a tube. But when it comes to teaching patients what to eat, what to avoid- hospitals fall short, and the hospital is the best place to teach a a patient.
More and more physicians are teaching patients how to cook. We spend more time teaching patients to cook than operating on them. It is time for hospitals to assist in this effort. Today when hospital performance is measured by re-admission rates acutely, but tomorrow hospitals will be defined by who keeps them out not just in 30 days but longer.