- Food pharmacies are becoming a popular program offered by health systems as a means for addressing food insecurity and hunger.
- These food pharmacies also provide an opportunity for health systems to better manage patient diseases, like diabetes, that are impacted by nutrition.
- Results of one food pharmacy program include a decrease in ED visits and a reduction in the cost of care.
Food pharmacies are becoming a popular program offered by health systems as a means for addressing food insecurity and hunger, and provide an opportunity to better manage patient diseases, like diabetes, that are impacted by nutrition. A recent story in Kaiser Health News highlights this trend, referencing that food insecurity is a concern particularly for seniors where nearly 8% of Americans age 60 and older are food insecure.
Providers are screening patients for food insecurity and providing access to food pantries, onsite food clinics or providing bags of groceries at discharge, to provide a source of healthy food to patients struggling to manage chronic conditions. As one clinician indicates in the article, medications are only part of a good care plan, a healthy diet and regular meals is also necessary.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Kate Sommerfeld, the president of social determinants of health at ProMedica, a 14-hospital system based in Toledo, Ohio. Sommerfeld took the position two years ago as ProMedica recognized the need for strong efforts to address SDOH issues in its patients.
Food insecurity was quickly identified as a top issue for the population they serve. All patients that enter their system are screened for food insecurity, and if screened positive, food is prescribed as medicine as part of the patient’s care plan. ProMedica has three food clinics that are co-located with their medical offices where patients can receive three days’ worth of food, once per month, for their entire family. This food prescription is good for six months, at which point their primary care physician can revalidate if needed.
Food insecurity leads to:
- Poor nutrition
- Poor glycemic control
- Development of chronic disease, including diabetes, obesity, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
The establishment of food clinics and health system partnerships with food banks is an effort to break this cycle, address nutrition issues and provide patients an opportunity to achieve better health outcomes. And while ProMedica saw their food pharmacy program as part of their mission to provide better care to patients, they have also been able to reduce the cost of care.
And the results are significant. Sommerfeld has tracked ProMedica’s efforts and found a quantifiable ROI in addressing hunger. For their Medicaid population, they reduced:
- Emergency department use by 28.5%
- Per member per month costs by 5%
ProMedica’s Sommerfeld recommends addressing food insecurity as a good first step for any health system looking to address SDOH issues with their patients. According to Sommerfeld, screening patients for food insecurity and providing access to food is a tangible way that can improve health, manage chronic disease and lower the cost of care for patients. Overall, incorporating a food program seems like the “low hanging fruit” for providers that are venturing into addressing social determinants of health for their population.
Other SDOH resources
For more on the impact of food security and other SDOH issues, check out:
- The recent joint HFMA, ACHP, AAPL and AONL report “Beyond Boundaries: Why finding ways to address social determinants is vital to healthcare’s future.”
- Listen to the recent “Voices in Healthcare Finance” podcast, featuring Nancy Johnson, RN, PhD, CEO of El Rio Health a FQHC in Tuscan, Arizona, where Johnson highlights how El Rio Health is able to track referrals and use of their local foodbank through their EHR.