In recent years, the fast-casual segment has been the darling of the foodservice industry — and with good reason. As Chicago-based market research firm Technomic continues to point out, sales and unit growth among fast-casual operators outpaces the overall restaurant industry. But quietly, almost behind the scenes, another operator segment continues to go through a significant transformation. And that segment is healthcare foodservice.

Healthcare foodservice is a long-tenured member of the non-commercial segment. Basically, as long as there have been hospitals, there's been a need to feed patients. To the casual observer, healthcare foodservice is all about the patient meal, but that perspective is a little too simplistic for this complex segment.

It's true that patients still come first in any healthcare foodservice setting as Laura Watson, system director, patient support services for Intermountain Healthcare, points out in this month's Parting Shot (page 80). It is incumbent upon operators to create a healing environment where patients not only know they can get better but the Affordable Care Act has mandated patients should also feel good about their experiences in the moment of delivery and service interaction, adds Watson, who is also president of the Association for Healthcare Foodservice.

But healthcare foodservice encompasses more than patient health. These days, healthcare foodservice professionals need to provide a showcase for healthy eating in the communities they serve. This includes leveraging local ingredients and enhancing all menus to ensure they match the quality of local restaurants. Healthcare foodservice operators today often use their retail outlets to reinforce the notion that their departments remain aligned with the overall health system's larger goals and objectives.

In doing so, healthcare foodservice operators are being asked to work more efficiently, reduce costs and maintain quality of care in every service they offer, as Lisette Coston of Saint Francis Health System points out in this month's Operator's Opinion.

To keep up with today's accelerated pace, healthcare foodservice operators may need to renovate their facilities to ensure they are flexible and efficient enough to meet their new realities. Such is the case at the University of Michigan Health System. Further, savvy healthcare foodservice professionals continue to work collaboratively with their peers in other systems, invest heavily in training and even leverage old technologies to produce new outcomes. (See Five Healthcare Innovators.)

Collectively, these individual developments point to a fundamental change as healthcare goes from simply offering food as a service to developing cuisine. You may not see any of the healthcare chefs on the FoodNetwork any time soon, which is disappointing given the quality of the food they prepare in such complex environments, but that does not mean customers are any less satisfied with their offerings. As a result, it seems healthcare foodservice operators now serve a new menu item: smiles.