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Health

Fast food is fast food, even at the hospital

| Monday, Dec. 4, 2006

Seeing a fast-food restaurant in a hospital makes people think that greasy fries and calorie-laden cheeseburgers are healthier than they really are, warns an Allegheny General Hospital pediatrician.

People surveyed inside a pediatric hospital with such a restaurant rated fast food twice as healthy as people surveyed inside a pediatric hospital without fast food, according to a study published by Allegheny General pediatrician Dr. Hannah Sahud.

"I think that is one of the most striking findings of the study," Sahud said. "The impact is, wow, having fast-food restaurants in hospitals is giving this false and clearly mixed message that is not keeping with the academic message that fast food is not healthy and contributes to obesity."

The study, published today in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, evaluated all 200 U.S. hospitals with a pediatric residency program and found that 59 had on-site fast food restaurants. Fifty-six percent of the people surveyed at a hospital with a McDonald's ate McDonald's that day, compared with 33 percent of people surveyed at a hospital without a McDonald's.

Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, and all hospitals in the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and West Penn Allegheny Health System do not have fast-food restaurants, according to hospital spokespeople. Excela Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg has a Subway in the gift shop.

Children's has decided that it won't put a fast food restaurant in its new hospital in Lawrenceville, which is scheduled to open in 2009.

"We're very aware of what foods are healthy and what foods are not, and we try to educate families about what good choices would be," said Dr. Andrew Urbach, interim medical director for the hospital, who was active in the building's design.

Cleveland Clinic is the closest major hospital with a fast-food restaurant. When Cleveland Clinic's chief executive officer, Dr. Toby Cosgrove, joined the staff two years ago, he became an outspoken critic of the hospital's McDonald's. A heart surgeon, Cosgrove saw the irony in repairing clogged arteries on one floor while serving fat-filled food on another.

"Dr. Cosgrove is very tall and in great shape, and he cares a lot about wellness and health and really took that on as one of his priorities at the clinic," said hospital spokeswoman Eileen Sheil.

The McDonald's is in the middle of a 20-year lease with the hospital and likely won't be leaving until that lease is up, she said. However, it offers more healthy choices than the typical McDonald's, such as salads and carrot sticks, and the hospital cafeteria places an emphasis on serving healthy options, Sheil said.

"I remember when we made all these changes in our hospital cafeteria, the first thing I saw was a mound of broccoli -- more broccoli than I've ever seen in my life," she said.

Dr. Goutham Rao, clinical director of the Weight Management and Wellness Center at Children's, said that's probably the best approach.

"I think instead of kicking (fast food restaurants) out -- which, politically, is very difficult, and I don't think is the best way to handle it anyway -- hospitals should work with them to make healthier options," Rao said. "Perhaps not having fries or only having fries once a week. Boycotting McDonald's -- that's not going to get to the root of the problem."

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