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Easing the pain of hospital food safety

Healthcare catering naturally has to meet the strictest standards.

Food safety issues that may simply cause discomfort to the healthy can have a potentially fatal impact on patients suffering from illnesses or recovering from surgery. Additionally, poor hygiene practices can lead to food poisoning outbreaks amongst medical staff who eat at hospital restaurants, causing staff shortages and further putting patients at risk.

That’s why all hospital catering facilities are regularly inspected under the Food Standards Agency’s Food Hygiene Rating Scheme in order to check that they have a strong focus on food safety management. However, over the past year multiple hospital catering operations (some run by outside contractors) have received extremely low food ratings, with inspectors finding out of date food, a lack of hand washing by staff or mixing of different food types. Others have been marked down because their records were not sufficiently up to date or filled in correctly.

When it comes to food safety, hospitals face many of the same issues as restaurants, with many relying on paper-based checklists to document, monitor and record that activities have been completed on time and to the right standard. Healthcare caterers also have the added complication that they are providing potentially hundreds or thousands of meals every day to an extremely wide range of patients, staff and visitors, often with specific requirements on what they can, and cannot eat.

Many restaurants are now moving away from paper-based processes, and hospitals can benefit by doing the same, delivering improvements in four areas:

1.Increased productivity
Staff involved in preparing, cooking and serving meals have an extremely heavy workload. While recording activities is necessary, constantly filling in paper checklists decreases productivity and takes up time that could be spent elsewhere. Replacing paper with digital technology, such as handheld devices that record information and wireless sensors that automatically monitor things like fridge or freezer temperatures, frees up staff time and allows them to be more productive, while still enforcing food safety.

2.Greater guidance
Paper-based processes don’t guide staff on how they should carry out duties or inform them what to do if a problem is found, such as out of range temperature readings. This means that procedures could be completed wrongly and any issues not dealt with correctly. Again, digital technology can provide greater detail on how to complete activities and automatically provide corrective actions to follow if problems are found. This ensures that best practice is enforced and potentially harmful issues are dealt with before they escalate.

3.Improved compliance
There are a number of problems with paper-based food safety systems. As well as their drain on productivity, they don’t always guarantee compliance. There is no time stamped record of when a checklist was actually filled in or by whom – in the heat of a busy hospital kitchen it may be seen as non-urgent and put aside until later. Paper records need to be stored, analysed and prepared for inspectors, adding to overheads and further impacting productivity. By contrast digital records are immediately available at the touch of a button and provide permanent, time-stamped proof of what was done, when, where and by whom.

4.Real-time control
Many hospital catering operations run 24 hours a day, and problems can develop at any time. With paper-based processes issues can be missed or managers not alerted until a problem has become much worse, with potentially fatal consequences. Digital technology that uploads monitoring data automatically to the cloud can be analysed immediately for any discrepancies, such as missed checks or out of range readings. Alerts can be triggered to ensure that managers take immediate action, at any time, day or night. Digital data gives managers with responsibility for multiple sites a real-time view of what is happening and where, even if they are on another site at the time. Furthermore, it allows them to spot trends over time and change processes or procedures to improve performance.

Both environmental health inspectors and the public are rightly extremely vigilant about standards of food safety in healthcare. Moving from paper-based to digital processes helps hospital catering teams ensure they are meeting the highest standards, increasing productivity and delivering reassurance to inspectors, patients, medical staff and hospital visitors.

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