Health Care In The States

Fast Food’s Slow Exit From Hospitals

By Elana Gordon, KCUR

April 12th, 2012, 6:00 AM

On one side of a wall inside the Truman Medical Center cafeteria in Kansas City, Mo., the menu features low-calorie, low-fat and low-sodium meals. On the other side of the wall is a McDonald’s, featuring hamburgers and french fries.

The pairing is a sore point for hospital CEO John Bluford who, as chair last year of the American Hospital Association, issued a call to action urging hospitals to eliminate unhealthy food in cafeterias as one way to create a culture of wellness. Serving fast food inside Truman Medical Centers sends “an inconsistent message” to patients, staff and the community, Bluford says.

In 1992, Truman agreed to a 25-year contract with McDonald’s, at a time when the financial benefit of having a stable food service client in the hospital outweighed any potential health concerns.

But times have changed, and now other hospitals interested in replacing fast food with more healthful options may find it isn’t as easy as it seems. In Ohio, the Cleveland Clinic tried in vain to terminate its contract early with McDonald’s 10 years ago. At the time, the clinic’s lead heart surgeon (and now hospital CEO), Delos Cosgove, proposed removing all fast food vendors.

The Pizza Hut did close. But McDonald’s stayed and remains a tricky relationship for the hospital, which has since removed sugary beverages and trans fats from its campus offerings. “We’re just going to live with it,” Bill Barum, director of hospitality and retail services for the Cleveland Clinic, says. “When the contract ends, we’ll have the opportunity to re-examine the space.”

Photo by _skynet via Flickr

After 34 years at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, McDonald’s closed its doors last September. The hospital says it wanted the extra space, but it has since added back milkshakes to the menu for sick kids, according to the hospital’s spokesperson, Julian Walsh.

Of the 14,000 McDonald’s in the United States, the company says there are 27 in hospitals. Fast food outlets like the hamburger chain can be a convenience and a comfort for patients. The food may also appeal to some patients’ picky tastes when undergoing difficult treatments.

And McDonald’s says its offerings are balanced to fit any diet. “Today, we offer more variety than ever in our menu, and we trust that our customers will make the appropriate choices for them, their families and lifestyles,” says Danya Proud, spokesperson for McDonald’s.

Some hospitals have as many as five different fast food outlets, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which surveyed hospital food in 2011 at more than 100 major U.S. hospitals. The report’s top five “worst hospital environments” had at least one fast food restaurant.

“In this day and age, you would think a hospital might be proud enough, if not shamed enough, to cut or end these contracts with fast food outlets,” says Susan Levin, a dietitian with PCRM.

But even as some hospitals are looking the end the contracts, others are striking up new ones. As NPR’s The Salt blog reported, Chick-fil-A recently set up shop in several medical facilities, including the Texas Medical Center’s St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital and the Medical University of South Carolina University Hospital in Charleston, S.C.

This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes KCUR, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

7 Responses to “Fast Food’s Slow Exit From Hospitals”

  1. Thomas says:

    I think Susan Levin is on to something…How about putting “street counselors” in front every McDonald’s to shame people into eating elsewhere — or not eating at all? As I recall, this is a favorite tactic of the unabashedly self-righteous.

  2. PRN says:

    Back in the 90s I was dumbstruck when one of our most prominent hospitals actually made space for unhealthy fast-food restaurants. I’m glad that McD’s is creating better menu items, but healthy nutrition is a secondary goal for them; they are looking out for their bottom line. The changes are due to push-back from people who are concerned about health. The corporate profit mindset has taken over our entire culture, and of course it’s in hospitals too. I’m glad that someone bothers to report on this stuff; I sure haven’t seen it in the big-business-friendly media.

  3. Tom says:

    It’s not about right or wrong, it’s about the money! If you are dumb enough to eat that greasy garbage, you deserve the heart attack you get.

  4. Barbara Cross says:

    Eating fast food is a choice people make and healthy menus are a plus but in a hospital setting these fast food franchises should be made to pay rental space plus 10% of their profits towards healthcare services provided by the hospital and the 10% could not be added on to the cost of purchases. I wonder how many would agree to those terms.

  5. Tom says:

    Hospitals? Healthy diets? Huh? Republicans refuse to admit that the individual mandate was originally their idea. Back in 1993, the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation pushed hard for the individual mandate. Back then, Newt backed the idea 100 percent. In 2006, Governor Romney got the individual mandate passed and enacted in Massachusetts. How in the world can you expect these flip-floppers to come to any consensus regarding passing dietary mandates when they can’t even admit that the mandate idea they had in 1993 is now a bad idea? Morons!

  6. 10% on the top of profit, these fast food companies are making ??? No way. I am currently in fast food business and over all profits are barely enough to pay the bills and debt. All the money we are making is our hourly wages. Replacing them with healthy choices is a good idea but think about the small business owners who have invested their life time saving here. There should be an exit strategy for them too.

  7. paul says:

    Most fast food makes me vomit!