Easing the Impact: Managing labor shortages in healthcare foodservice

As vice president of food and nutrition services for a large hospital system, Frank is always seeking to balance operational efficiencies and patient experience. His day-to-day challenge is to make sure costs don’t rise and service levels don’t fall. Labor shortages aren’t helping. But Frank has found that automation is an answer. He’s already implemented self-service cafeteria ordering and checkout, with gains in throughput and reductions in labor costs. Now he’s considering cashierless kiosks and vending machines. Not only does automation meet his goals of controlling costs and improving service levels, patients and staff are responding well to the new options.

“A few years ago, one of the big concerns in healthcare was the cost of labor, and people were thinking that they might have to shrink their staff,” says Scott Jerabek, CBChart showing impact of staffing shortages in healthcareORD’s director of product management. But that quickly changed with COVID. “Now, it’s the fact that they can’t get enough employees that’s on everybody’s mind.”

In a recent CBORD Insights survey, 80% of respondents said they are experiencing labor shortages on a regular basis, and 69% said they are unable to fill all their open positions. And costs are still an issue: With the ongoing imbalance of supply and demand, 45% say their labor costs have increased.

Nursing shortages have gotten most of the press, but labor shortages have impacted many hospital operations, including foodservice. A lack of kitchen and cafeteria staff has led to limited menus, longer lines, delays in filling orders, and shorter hoursof operation. In many cases, facilities have had to close dining locations in order to meet patient dietary requirements. This affects the staff and visitor experience while also shutting down important sources of revenue.

While healthcare foodservice operations have been cutting back and doing without, patient expectations for convenience and quality have remained high. Staff are caught in the middle and can feel overworked and burned out, which only makes it harder to retain people and maintain service levels.

Many institutions are attacking these front-line issues with automation. For example, during COVID, many foodservice operations turned to mobile ordering, which continues to be used widely. But now, they are also looking more closely at automation for in-person dining. “With dining allowed back at full capacity, we’re seeing a resurgence of self-service as a way to alleviate labor shortages and serve customers,” Jerabek says.

Institutions have a growing range of tools at their disposal, from self-checkout POS systems to self-service kiosks and food lockers. Partnerships with national retailers like Starbucks also allows staff to purchase food with their credential cards using payroll deduction. Technology is already enabling early-adopter campuses to install cashierless kiosks or arrange food delivery by robots.

Healthcare foodservice executive working with laptop

Mobile ordering and front-line automation can have a real impact. But technology can also help by increasing efficiency in less obvious areas, which can translate to a reduced need for more people. For example, systemwide dining management can streamline menu changes, improve efficiencies, and control costs. Even trays carrying patient meals can be automatically tracked through a facility, providing visibility into the meal service process for real-time monitoring and workflow optimization.

For the foreseeable future, labor shortages will continue to affect virtually every aspect of healthcare, which means systems will need to keep looking for labor-saving solutions across their operations. They will also need to continuously improve service levels for patients, staff, and visitors who expect frictionless options.

Fortunately, technology is improving alongside these market challenges, creating the opportunity for everything from spot solutions to connected systems. Automation is helping staff work more efficiently, with less burnout, so patients can get services they need. In short, innovative ways to reduce the impact of labor shortages are coming to a hospital near you.

CBORD Insights proprietary research, Customer Priorities Survey, September 2022, n=276.

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