Healthcare News & Insights

Food insecurity: What hospitals can do for patients

Food insecurity is a significant problem for patients. And as hospitals put more effort into population health initiatives to better serve their communities, it’s become a higher priority to ensure patients have regular access to healthy food. 

Through the Health Research & Educational Trust, the American Hospital Association recently released a report detailing just how much of an impact food insecurity has on people’s health, as well as how hospitals can make an impact.

Nutrition impacts health

According to research, only 20% of a person’s health condition can actually be attributed to the medical care they receive. Social and economic factors, such as the ability to purchase nutritious food, account for 40%.

People are defined as food insecure if they live in a household where there’s limited or uncertain access to food that results in missed meals or other disrupted eating patterns. In 2015, nearly 13% of households experienced food insecurity at some point during the year.

Chronic food insecurity can exacerbate many conditions, including diabetes, hypertension and anemia. This can lead to poor overall health and multiple hospital stays, including 30-day readmissions. Since hospitals are frequently penalized for these negative outcomes, they’ve got additional incentive to help patients obtain balanced meals.

How facilities can help

Hospitals can take several steps to minimize the impact of food insecurity on patients.

Screening patients for food insecurity once they’ve been admitted is an excellent start. Asking patients if they’ve recently (in the last 12 months) worried about whether food would run out before they got money to buy more can help providers assess if they’re experiencing food insecurity.

To further streamline the screening process, facilities can incorporate a food insecurity screening in their electronic health records (EHR) systems. That way, the results can be saved in the EHR, so it’s easier for other providers to see patients’ status during subsequent visits. It also makes it simpler to refer patients to necessary services.

Occasionally, hospitals take it a step further, hosting on-site food pantries where patients can receive healthy snacks and free food. Some facilities write patients “prescriptions” for nutritious food from local food pantries.

Other on-site services facilities can provide include:

  • nutrition classes
  • services to help patients apply for federal food benefits (SNAP, WIC, etc.)
  • community gardens with free produce
  • food stands with local farmers, and
  • support groups for patients experiencing food insecurity/nutrition issues.

Another key to helping patients who are experiencing food insecurity is to partner with various community organizations. Along with food banks and food pantries, hospitals can work with grocery stores and farmers’ markets to raise awareness about the issue.

In addition, hospitals can take a different approach and forge more innovative partnerships with schools and eldercare agencies to help feed disadvantaged students or senior citizens.

Whatever path a facility chooses, it’s a good idea to take a more active role to make sure patients have enough nutritious food to eat once they’ve been discharged from the hospital.

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