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How to use the waiting room to fight food insecurity

March 30, 2017

    Food insecurity directly costs the U.S. health system $155 billion annually, as it exacerbates nutrition-related disorders such as obesity and diabetes and contributes to mental health issues. Attacking this problem can seem daunting for provider organizations, but following a few best practices can help you achieve success with improved health outcomes and reduced downstream costs.

    Consider Lankenau Medical Center, part of Main Line Health, which noticed a common thread in the health challenges of its patients: inconsistent access to fresh, healthy food. In response, Lankenau partnered with a non-profit organization to develop and maintain a farm on its campus to provide fresh produce for patients in need. To supplement the free produce, Lankenau provides cross-continuum nutritional support such as education classes and vouchers to local farmer's markets.

    Here are three tips we've gleaned from their success:

    1. Leverage existing assets creatively

    In early 2016, Lankenau appropriated underutilized land on campus to create a half-acre farm that provides access to free produce for it patients. Now, in outpatient practices, medical assistants offer patients the available produce and discuss preparation techniques.

    On certain days, health educators also present pop-up food education or demonstration classes to patients in the waiting room. Patients then enter their appointments with new knowledge and fresh produce, priming their physicians to focus on nutrition-related topics. The entire patient experience centers on education, wellness, and nutrition.

    Additionally, Lankenau administers Social Needs Surveys before appointments to determine if patients require additional community-based support. Medical students then follow up, connecting patients with relevant resources.

    Get resources to identify and address health inequity in your community

    2. Focus efforts on high-risk zip codes or practices

    It simply isn't scalable to provide this range of support to every patient at every location. Lankenau used ZIP codes to identify the most at-risk communities in its service area. Practices within those ZIP codes, which ranked last among all Pennsylvania counties by public health outcomes, are targeted for these additional nutrition services.

    3. Build initiatives into EHR to measure usage and success

    Lankenau incorporated its efforts into its EHR to track important metrics like produce volume and usage. From May 2016 to February 2017, Lankenau harvested 4,183 pounds of produce and fed 735 patients using half of an acre. The hospital is starting to track patient attendance of the pop-up education classes, and is planning to launch a patient satisfaction survey this spring to assess health educator effectiveness.

    Consistent and extensive self-auditing not only increases care quality, but also helps build the business case for hospitals looking to invest in preventive, value-based, downstream cost-saving care.

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