Why this is important to Wisconsin businesses: Hospitals and other health care facilities have room for improvement in the food they serve to patients, and Wisconsin companies can be part of the solution.

Belgium has one of the best health care industries in the world. The industry has a significant size and importance in this small country. Total annual health care spending in Belgium is $55 billion, more than 10 percent of its national GDP. Public and private spending is about 50 percent of that in the U.S.

As the Belgian population is aging, it is expected that the industry will keep growing in the future. In 2007, 17 percent of the population was age 65 and older; by 2017, this segment had increased to 20 percent of the population.

While the U.S. has much higher total spending as a share of its economy, its public expenditures are in line with other countries. In 2016, the U.S. spent about 8.5 percent of its GDP on health out of public funds—essentially on par with other comparable countries, including Belgium. Public consumption growth (in volume) amounted to 0.7 percent in 2017 and, assuming no new initiatives are undertaken, will gradually increase to 1.2 percent in 2022, supported by the increase in public health care spending. In short, it is not only a large industry, but is rated the third-best in Europe, behind the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Given these trends in the Belgian health care sector and the country’s aging population, food has been recognized as a factor of increasing importance. From clinical nutrition research studies, it appears that of those hospitalized over age 75, one-third have a protein deficiency and 43 percent are at risk of malnutrition.

To help patients gain as much energy as possible to return to health, good nutrition is crucial. As a percentage of the total food market, food in health care takes up 3 percent of the total market volume, equaling more than $500 million. In 2017 it was estimated that the cost of malnutrition in hospitals is costing society approximately $480 million per year.

In 2017, Wisconsin’s trade representative in the Benelux market conducted proprietary, qualitative field research aimed at 13 large Flemish (Belgian) hospitals, with the goal of determining if the current food service meets nutritional standards. According to the survey results, food service in Belgian hospitals appears not to meet standards. Between 30 and 60 percent of patients are said to suffer from malnutrition, not necessarily due to quality of food, but because of eating/feeding disorders or lack of appetite of the patients. More attention should therefore be given to the abilities, preferences and condition of the patients. Malnutrition has negative effects not only for the patients but for the hospital, including:

  • Longer recovery period for the patient
  • Longer stay at hospital
  • Extra costs for patient and hospital

According to survey respondents, two-thirds of the food services that are offered are provided by external food service companies, and the rest by in-house services. About 8 out of 10 respondents do regular research to determine general level of satisfaction with the hospital, including the food. More than half (seven hospitals) conduct regular research specifically on the topic of food. One out of three hospitals report that they keep track of elderly patients’ dietary profiles; the same percentage of hospitals claims to serve adapted meal plans when needed.
For the most part, food service providers are focused on cost and efficiency, and thus do not offer the food quality tailored to the needs of the patients.

Belgian hospitals are considering solutions to this significant challenge. Although healthy food might be more expensive in the short term, it will save money on the long run. This implies opportunities for external, specialized food service that can offer personalization of diets, solutions for food waste reduction, and supply of healthy food tailored to the needs of various patient segments. Hospitals are looking for more flexible food schedules that are easier to personalize to each patient’s needs. Providing healthy food and reducing food waste would be in line with overall societal trends.