Contract catering: The future of private hospitals

27 September 2007 by
Contract catering: The future of private hospitals

As Sodexho Healthcare's new contract at Nuffield beds in, Janet Harmer talks to Iain Anderson about the future of private hospital catering

Sodexho Healthcare's success in securing the contract to cater for 39 Nuffield hospitals throughout England and Scotland heralds a significant change in the private healthcare market.

Before the signing of the contract, worth £50m over five years, only 8% of catering in the private healthcare market was outsourced. Today, as a result of the Sodexho-Nuffield alliance, this figure has jumped to 30%. The changes reflect an increased emphasis on financial targets and improved quality of care and service, allowing private healthcare operators to concentrate more on core clinical business.

"As margins are being squeezed, more private healthcare companies are moving towards outsourcing," says Iain Anderson, managing director at Sodexho Healthcare, a key figure in the successful tendering process.

Contributory factor

There's no doubt that Anderson's experience, which unusually includes both hotels and the private healthcare market, was a significant contributory factor in winning the contract, which Sodexho took over in December 2006. Having initially worked in hotels in his native Scotland, culminating in a position as general manager for Swallow Hotels, Anderson joined BUPA Hospitals in 1992 as general manager of the Murrayfield Hospital, Edinburgh. He remained with the company for eight years, during which he was promoted on to the operational board with responsibility for 12 private hospitals and 2,500 staff.

"Through my experience with BUPA, I became fully conversant with the culture and dynamics of the healthcare market," says Anderson. "It's important to be able to understand the medical terminology and the relationship between consultants and their patients to be able to build business."

Hotel experience

Anderson's hotel experience provided him with the customer care knowledge that's so important in the private healthcare market. "This market is all about providing a personal service to patients that's akin to the kind of service that top-class hotels provide guests," he says. "The expectation of patients is very high and I understand what their demands are."

Anderson believes the other key factors that helped Sodexho Healthcare win the contract include the good dynamics between the management teams of Nuffield and Sodexho, the value for money that Sodexho could offer and the company's success in a cook-off against a competitor company.

"It was extremely important for us to win the contract, as it's the first contract of this size within the private healthcare sector to be won by a company like Sodexho," Anderson says. "Winning a major contract on a multisite basis has been very much part of our strategic plans."

The Nuffield contract involves feeding all patients, visitors and staff at its 39 hospitals - 38 of which are in England, with one in Glasgow. All food is freshly prepared at each hospital.

A new patient menu has been introduced, offering a wider and healthier choice of dishes, alongside new cutlery and bone china crockery. Sodexho works with dietitians and with Nuffield to ensure all food is prepared using methods which enhance its nutritional value.

Regional dishes

A number of dishes are standardised across all 39 hospitals. Drawn up by development chef Debbie Kelly-Greaves, they include main-course dishes such as pasta with spinach, mushrooms and basil pesto oven-roasted salmon on a green bean salad and meaty steak, grainy mustard and onion pie. However, the head chefs in each hospital are also encouraged to introduce regional dishes to their menus.

Specific emphasis has been placed on improving the consistency and quality of the food, which has resulted in a major investment in training staff. "Taking on Nuffield employees and developing them has been the most daunting, challenging and stressful part of the process," says Anderson.

Of particular importance is the service of food to the patients. The hostesses who deliver the food all have food-handling training and are given details of the preparation and content of all dishes so they can provide the correct information to patients. Presentation is intended to be equal to that found in room service at a five-star hotel, with strong emphasis on appeal, colour and the correct temperature.

Hot trolleys

The food is served, one course at a time, from hot trolleys which are plugged in at the ward after being delivered direct from being prepared and cooked in the hospital kitchen. Each dish is cleared before the next course is served.

"Food is such an essential element of a patient's recovery and wellbeing that it's vital we get it right," says Anderson. So far, feedback from patients is positive. Anderson has spoken to three or four patients at each of the nine hospitals he has visited and reports that comments he has received all describe the food as "first-class".

Visitors can select a meal from the patients' menu. As well as lunch and dinner, they can choose from a selection of salads and sandwiches throughout the day and evening. A pay-as-you-go system, introduced for employees in July, started slowly and is gradually beginning to build. Staff previously had free food and have been financially compensated by Nuffield for the loss of the perk.

Anderson hopes the individual style of food delivery in the private healthcare market will eventually be extended into the NHS. "The expectations of patients - in all sectors - is growing all the time," he says. "People can now choose which hospital to go to and they spend time on websites discovering all sorts of information about hospitals including the food, the cleanliness, the parking facilities and the visiting hours, as well as the clinical options. We therefore have a window of opportunity to exploit the marketplace by offering something different."

Unique service

Although unable to reveal Sodexho Healthcare's imminent plans, Anderson confirmed that the company has been working for the past 15 months on a project that is set to deliver a unique service offer within the NHS. He hopes to announce the plans next month.

Looking to the future of catering in the NHS, Anderson says the design of new hospitals is moving away from large wards of 20 beds to wards with no more than six beds. He hopes this will eventually lead to more hospitals being able to offer individual rooms, akin to the private sector, but recognises that could prove to be controversial from a funding point of view. Such a move, however, will allow caterers to offer a more personalised catering service. At the end of the day, Anderson recognises that improvements in hospital catering are dependent on finance. With restricted budgets - catering for three meals a day, plus all drinks, ranges from £2 to £2.75 in NHS hospitals and £3 to £4 in the private sector - raising the quality of catering is an ongoing challenge.

"We have to ensure that we have very good purchasing arrangements and that we're lean and efficient in our overheads to meet these budgets," says Anderson. "It does help in those contracts where we offer more than just catering services - such as domestic, engineering, security, mail, retail and switchboard services - as we can offset one against another."

Sodexho Healthcare managing director Iain Anderson: "I would like to see patients being able to order food when they want it, similar to room service in a hotel"

Sodexho Healthcare

Sodexho Healthcare operates contracts at 198 units throughout the UK across the healthcare market

  • NHS 94 units
  • Senior care homes 57 units
  • Private hospitals 39 units
  • Home service delivery eight units (involves delivering two million meals a year)

Iain Anderson - A career in focus

Iain Anderson was appointed managing director of Sodexho Healthcare in July 2003 and sits on the executive board for Sodexho UK & Ireland. He is responsible for the strategic direction of the healthcare division, focusing on growing the business in the NHS and PFI markets, private hospitals, senior care homes and diagnosis and treatment centres.

Anderson began his hospitality career in the hotel industry, spending 10 years with Swallow Hotels, eventually becoming general manager.

In 1992 he joined BUPA Hospitals. During his eight years with the company he progressed from general manager of the Murrayfield Hospital in Edinburgh on to the operational board for BUPA Hospitals UK, with responsibility for 12 private hospitals and 2,500 staff.

On leaving BUPA, Anderson joined Healthcall as managing director, which at the time was the UK's number one provider of GP out-of-hours services. On the acquisition of Healthcall by the Nestor Healthcare Group, he was appointed managing director for Primecare Primary Care.

Since his appointment at Sodexho Healthcare, Anderson has taken on the role of chairman of the Business Services Association Health Group Committee, as well as becoming a member of the CBI Healthcare Panel.

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