Connecting the Seams of Patient Care With Food

By Jason Bilsky, CEO and President, Yukon Hospital and a member of the Nourish team.

Jason Bilsky is the CEO and President of Yukon Hospital. The Yukon Hospital Corporation is participating in the Nourish Innovator program with innovator Leslie Carson, Manager of Nutrition and Food Services, and supporting participant Laura Salmon, Director, First Nations Health Programs.


When someone gets sick and goes to the hospital, they do not ­­see the healthcare system as parts but take a continuous personal journey through it. It doesn’t matter which hospital they enter or what treatment or services; patients tend to take in one overall experience towards recovery. However, when there are gaps, they notice. From the moment the patient steps into the hospital doors, factors like wayfinding and information flow, to cleanliness and especially the food that appears on a plate all contribute to a holistic patient experience.

While the food that is served at a healthcare institution exists as a line item in a budget, it can also be an opportunity to connect to a broader continuum of patient care. Comforting and healing food is one of the most fundamental touchpoints in a healthcare experience that connects the patient to a feeling of safety and comfort in a foreign space that feels far away from their home. There are many competing priorities in the complex healthcare system, but food is central to a person’s well-being.  It breaks down boundaries between the hospital walls, the home and the greater community.

Patient experience is one of the strategic pillars around which hospitals are defined, and the quality of patient experience is determined by the patient. This means that patients need to be listened to as whole people, where their care is not just limited to clinical needs and medical treatment. Taking a holistic perspective to patient-centred care also means looking at the person outside hospital walls and understanding their social context, home situation and food traditions or practices.

Patient-centred care is about putting power and autonomy back into the hands of patients by helping them to access what they need to feel safe and well cared for — including food.

The Yukon Hospital chooses to serve fresh and nourishing traditional food in order to meet the needs of Indigenous peoples who visit our hospitals. To be sick is a deeply vulnerable state. Patient-centred care is about putting power and autonomy back into the hands of patients by helping them to access what they need to feel safe and well cared for — including food. A truly safe healthcare environment must include cultural safety. Offering choices around culturally appropriate foods at the times when patients need it most allows hospitals to embrace the healing power of food as part of the recovery process.

Providing culturally relevant foods is doing business in a respectful, ethical and culturally appropriate manner. It also demonstrates values that intersect with heeding the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an obligation that healthcare institutions should strive towards. It represents an example of reflecting on policies and practices and not perpetuating historical injustices.

Innovating around food in healthcare is not without its challenges. To deliver the traditional food program, the Yukon Hospital had to set up the ability to source wild meat while complying with food regulations. This requires a commitment to seeing patients as people and the dedication to turn constraints into opportunities.

We must remember that addressing food as a priority is not a sprint, it is a marathon.

Connor, a staff member showing off traditional food served at Yukon Hospital.

We must remember that addressing food as a priority is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Food and the way it is sourced, prepare and served — as well as communication about its role in healing — can be integral to a holistic model of care. However, including and upholding these unique practices requires ongoing advocacy and passion.  It requires breaking down the walls to build alignment and capacity around what is important to us. While sprints may be necessary in acute healthcare, we must not lose sight of the important endeavors that only reveal their benefits in the long-run.

Check out the Nourish website to see how other Nourish innovators are creating opportunities with food to connect the seams in patient experience and improve conditions both downstream and upstream. Stephanie Cook in Saskatchewan wants to challenge the narrative around bad hospital food by telling a new story about the value of serving better, more respectful and comforting food to patients. In Ontario, Louise Quenneville shares the healing power of hospital gardens with patients to support emotional, psychological and physical well-being. Josée Lavoieinnovates with a new hospital room service model in Quebec to offer greater choice around when patients eat. Lastly, Laura Tkach, Carlota Basualdo, and Danielle Barriault describe how Alberta Health Services are finding strategic ways to engage directly with patients to co-develop nutritious and tasty menus and diets.

The ultimate goal of healthcare institutions is to keep the patient out of the hospital and healthy at home. By being intentional around modelling healthier eating and offering more culturally relevant food choices, we can support patients to have faster recovery times and less returns to the hospital, but we also help create a healthier population overall.