Working Smarter: Managing shortages in healthcare foodservice

Lynn, the director of dining services for a regional hospital system, experienced the impact of the supply chain shortages first-hand this morning. Her primary vendor notified her that their standing order for spinach is backlogged. Half the order could be filled, but at a highly inflated price. She wasn’t looking forward to telling the head dietitian that spinach was off the menu next week. So, Lynn spent some time in the system’s food service operations platform exploring options. She found that kale is nutritionally equivalent to spinach, and easily procured.  She was able to discuss this with the dietitian and modify the vendor order before lunchtime.

In healthcare, supply chain disruptions have created shortages of important foodservice supplies across operations. But the problem is especially concerning when shortages impact patient safety and the overall experience.

Healthcare systems rely on a steady supply of approved menu ingredients. But supply chain shortages mean constantly shifting markets in which an item that’s available today becomes Chart showing impacts of supply chain shortages and inflation in healthcare unavailable tomorrow. This necessitates speedy substitutions with nutritional equivalents. In-demand menu items can increase costs, as does inflation in general. In a recent CBORD survey, 77% of healthcare foodservice respondents said that they have found regular supplies to be unavailable, and 71% said they have seen food prices spike recently.

“Healthcare systems can’t do anything about the causes of supply chain disruptions, but they can certainly minimize the impact of those disruptions on operations and patient nutrition,” says Heather Whitehouse, director of product management at CBORD. And this is very much a situation where “knowledge is power” — data-driven knowledge, that is.

The increasing use of automation in healthcare foodservice operations means that organizations can capture, share, and leverage a growing amount of data. “You can automate not only tasks, but also the flow of data, which creates new possibilities,” says Whitehouse. For example, pulling together data from modern POS, food management, and ordering systems makes it possible to keep close track of costs and more easily identify cost drivers. “That insight into the menu mix and how prices are changing over time allows you to do something about costs proactively,” says Whitehouse.

In addition, data can lead to better visibility into demand and inventory, which can help facilities order proactively and just-in-time to reduce the need to keep large, costly inventories on hand. Even better, tighter controls mean less waste.

Insights from data also let institutions dynamically adjust menus with substitutions or alternative suppliers. When an item suddenly becomes unavailable, operations can quickly search data for an appropriate replacement or rethink menus while ensuring that they have met patient dietary requirements. The primary concerns with product substitutions are ensuring patients receive the foods approved for their diet order and are not served an allergen-containing food. Such tasks can take a great deal of manual effort in less data-driven organizations.

Healthcare executives discussing challenges in healthcare foodservice

Analytics can be used to bring integrated data together into concise dashboards to help institutions keep tabs on key performance indicators, meet regulatory requirements, and continue to fine-tune operations to meet increasing patient, visitor, and staff expectations. Integrating vendor data can also be a valuable way to manage supply chain disruptions. When an item is out of stock, food service managers can search a vendor’s inventory to find suitable substitutes and nutritional equivalents. “They may even be able to work ahead to identify several ingredients that meet specific requirements, such as gluten free or vegan items, to set up a kind of safety net,” says Whitehouse. “If an item goes out of stock, the system will then automatically recommend the next item that you’ve identified.” At the same time, real-time purchase order tracking helps managers factor price into substitution decisions.

Overall, streamlined interactions with vendors have become so important that many food suppliers now use CBORD’s food management solutions internally to help make the flow of data — and collaboration — seamless and easy. Patients get nutritious meals they need and never know that just-in-time meal planning was in action.

Data can be a vital asset in managing through supply chain disruptions and rising costs — and, indeed, through the range of changes that will undoubtedly face healthcare in the coming years. As a result, institutions have an opportunity to tap into more data and put it to work to inform and guide healthcare foodservice decision making in response to change. As Whitehouse puts it, “The more that we can have the right data in the right hands at the right times, the better.”

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

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