A medical practitioner’s role in addressing food insecurity

A group of physicians and healthcare leaders convened at a recent Humana event to discuss what the medical practitioner’s role should be in addressing food insecurity as part of improving patient outcomes. Below, Drs. Toyin Ajayi and Andrew Renda summarize the discussion.

It's an unfortunate truth that in our current healthcare system, too-short, too-packed appointments often mean that providers do not have time to understand all that is going on with their patients beyond the walls of their practices. While the treatments we prescribe address their physical symptoms, we know little about the social, economic and environmental challenges our patients face that impede their health. These social determinants of health (SDoH) – such as reliable transportation, nutritious food, stable housing, community and human connection – are critical to health and well-being. Yet, the way that medicine is still widely practiced, especially in lower-income communities, is extremely costly and fragmented, and it fails to produce the health outcomes and cost efficiencies we all want.

One of the most prevalent, most harmful barriers to good health is lack of access to enough nutritious food. Food insecurity leads to higher rates of chronic disease, emergency department visits and hospitalizations, driving $77.5 billion in related healthcare costs. We cannot expect to improve health and reduce costs if we do not first ensure that patients eat well. This is no small issue: Adults experiencing poverty, who presumably lack consistent healthful food, are at higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, depression, disability and even premature mortality.

So why is food insecurity not considered a clinical gap in care? Shouldn’t all providers have a responsibility to diagnose SDoH as they would other medical conditions?

These were the questions posed to a group of physicians and healthcare leaders at a recent TEDMED event, convened by Humana, at which participants sought to understand what the medical practitioner’s role should be in addressing food insecurity as part of improving patient outcomes.

Addressing food insecurity will require a major restructuring of the roles and responsibilities of healthcare providers. Beyond that, we need to implement interventions using technology platforms, validated screening tools and referral sources, as well as new code sets and payment models, to enable physicians to make food-insecurity assessment standard practice.

How do we make this work?

Community provider-driven care teams. For physicians to feasibly address food insecurity and other SDoH requires a significant shift to a team-based approach, one reaches well beyond the walls of the medical practice and into the communities where patients live.

This team-based, flexible approach is the foundation that Cityblock Health is built on. Multidisciplinary care teams are led by Community Health Partners – individuals from within the community who understand the experiences of people living there. Community Health Partners meet patients where they are, taking time to understand what is going on in their lives and connecting them to the right resources. They enhance the clinical team’s understanding of patients’ realities and design interventions for their specific needs. Team-based models necessitate a significant role change for physicians, who will have to work closely with non-medical, community-based partners.

Value-based care. Few reimbursement systems are currently set up to adequately pay medical practices for time and resources spent treating SDoH. Value-based models, in which reimbursements depend on patient outcomes, encourage and allow room for care teams to address all aspects of health – from medical and behavioral health conditions to social needs – as equally critical in every patient’s care.

In value-based care models, then, we need to develop clear measures tied to addressing social determinants of health and their impact on outcomes.

Evidence and outcomes. Currently, there is limited evidence showing which approaches to SDoH are most effective at improving health outcomes and providing a return on investment. However, one example showing real benefits is the provision of medically-tailored, home delivered meal programs for the elderly. These programs have been shown to improve clinical outcomes, including blood pressure and diabetes control, and to help curtail emergency department visits and inpatient admissions for adults who are dually eligible for Medicaid and Medicare.

It’s critical that we establish methods and metrics to expand evidence-based programs and measure various approaches that address SDoH. As part of that effort, Humana is currently working with the National Quality Forum to define quality measures around food insecurity. This effort will enable us to standardize benchmark measurements and expectations to help physicians effectively address food insecurity and to incentivize and compensate based on validated measures tied to patient outcomes.

We’re in the early stages, but there is growing momentum for treating SDoH as clinical gaps in care. To make real progress toward that end, decision-makers across healthcare – from policymakers to health plan and health system executives – need to align on a shared vision and efforts to address patients’ comprehensive health and social needs. Physicians alone cannot cure food insecurity, but we can be powerful partners in holistically addressing the needs of our patients and communities.

Toyin Ajayi, M.D., is the chief health officer at Cityblock Health, and Andrew Renda, M.D., is associate vice president, population health strategy, Bold Goal, at Humana.