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Northwell starts food insecurity program to address social determinants of health

Hospital giving certain patients a nutrition consultation, two-day supply of fresh produce and a prescription for two refills.

Susan Morse, Senior Editor

Northwell Health in New York has launched a program to address food insecurity and is tracking readmissions rates to determine the success of focusing on the social determinants of health.

Since the program just launched, it's too early to know the return on its investment, but a Northwell executive said the health system already knows that providing even medically tailored meals costs less than an avoidable readmission. 

"Providing three meals a day of medically tailored meals for a month costs $800," said Nancy Copperman, vice president of Community Health. "That's significantly less than the cost of an avoidable readmission, especially for a patient with a condition like COPD or heart failure, both of which are impacted by food insecurity." 

In a similar program, Montefiore, also in New York, invested in housing and realized a 300 percent ROI through a reduction in hospitalizations and emergency room visits.

Other providers are identifying patient factors outside of the hospital and clinician's office that influence chronic conditions and recovery and impede value-based care.

Northwell is piloting the Food as Health program at Long Island Jewish Valley Stream, where one in five patients is food insecure. It plans to roll out the program at other hospitals in the health system this fall.

"We are delighted by the feedback we're getting from our patients, who say this will make a tremendous difference in their lives," said Stephen Bello, executive director of Long Island Jewish Valley Stream."We're also tracking the effect of the program on things like readmission rates and will use that data to refine our efforts."

Patients at LIJ who have a diagnosis that is affected by nutrition are screened to identify those who are food insecure.

At discharge, they're given a two-day supply of fresh produce and non-perishable food, which is provided by Baldor Foods and US Foods and a "prescription" for two refills. If patients have transportation or mobility issues, Long Island Cares will deliver emergency food supplies to their homes, Northwell said.

They also receive a nutrition consultation. An Island Harvest Food Bank registered dietician tells them about food resources, either in the hospital's Food as Health Center or in their hospital room.

The Food as Health program is a partnership of these community organizations and food suppliers such as the Harry Chapin Food Bank.

If patients are unable to cook for themselves, God's Love We Deliver will supply medically tailored meals. Patients who qualify are given help in enrolling in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Food insecurity is due to affordability issues, a lack of nutritional awareness, transportation and mobility problems, and difficulty in preparing meals, Northwell said.

"As a wellness organization, we believe the only way to make a substantial and lasting difference in the health of the people in our community is by tackling some of the nonclinical factors that are holding them back," said Ram Raju, MD, the health system's senior vice president and community health investment officer. 

Research shows that 1.3 million people throughout the New York metropolitan area are food insecure, which increases the risk of chronic disease, lengthens hospital stays, raises the likelihood that readmission will be needed and inflates healthcare costs, Northwell said.

Twitter: @SusanJMorse
Email the writer: susan.morse@himssmedia.com

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