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I recently had a conversation with Espyr’s team of health and fitness coaches where they reminded me that water and food are types of medicine. They said that the importance and role of nutrition as medicine have been known in the health coaching field for decades. They pointed out poor hydration and poor food choices are heavy contributors to poor health, especially for people whose jobs make eating healthy and drinking enough water a daily challenge. The coaches told me that when people make even small behavioral changes around drinking more water and eating healthier foods, that these small changes often lead to big improvements in personal health. Those improvements can be even more dramatic when one is supported, educated, encouraged, and held accountable by a professional health coach.
Impact on the healthcare ecosystem
The health coaches also reminded me of another important consequence of their work with their clients- the reduced use of healthcare resources. Specifically, that means fewer hospital admissions and fewer emergency room visits. And that amounts to savings for consumers, employers, commercial insurers, and taxpayers who fund government run insurance programs such as Medicaid and Medicare.
Now all this makes a great deal of sense to me as a clinician, but it’s been a message that seemingly has been lost on insurers. That is until the COVID-19 Pandemic started to change attitudes.
The pandemic’s impact on the role of nutrition
During the early stages of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, some insurers reached out to make sure patients had adequate food. They knew that while the pandemic had created much fear, illness, and death it quickly disrupted supply chains of food to grocery stores. It also created social and physical isolation for many people who were not able to get support from families and friends. Importantly, insurers knew that inadequate nutrition could lead to otherwise avoidable hospital readmissions – something that both patients and insurers don’t want. Hopefully, the entire commercial health insurance industry will get more comfortable with this simple notion born out of the COVID emergency that good nutrition sustains health and saves money for insurers, employers, and taxpayers.
Insurers realize the benefits of nutrition as medicine
While some commercial insurers have taken steps to see that people who are recently discharged from the hospital have adequate food, the fledgling trend around nutrition as medicine is seen mostly in public insurance programs. One such program is Medicaid, a federally funded, state operated insurance program for the poor. Several states are examining some type of food coverage. Medicare, the federally funded insurance coverage for older or disabled Americans is doing the same. Recently as many as 7 million enrollees in Medicare Advantage -a type of private Medicare health plan- were offered dietary support.
Patients who eat foods tailored to their medical condition are less likely to be readmitted
to costly inpatient medical care or to use expensive emergency department resources
Insurers who are taking steps to add healthy food coverage to their menus are doing so for sound clinical and business reasons. Studies show that patients who eat foods tailored to their condition (diabetes, hypertension, coronary disease, obesity, etc.) are less likely to be readmitted to costly inpatient medical care or to use expensive emergency department resources. The ongoing pandemic that is straining healthcare resources makes reducing readmissions even more important.
Small changes can have big results
As our Espyr health coaches are fond of pointing out, even small changes in diet and hydration have been shown to be impactful. This is especially important for people taking medications whose effect can be diminished by poor nutrition and inadequate hydration; to those living on fixed budgets who can’t afford healthy foods without assistance; or to the millions of disadvantaged people living in communities that are effectively healthy food deserts.
Business leaders need to take note
This trend is not just about reducing hunger in a pandemic that has worsened food availability across the world. It’s also about educating people about the impact that nutrition and hydration have on health. It’s about providing relatively inexpensive support to help people achieve a better health status. Importantly, it’s about business leaders appreciating that there is a demonstrable return on investment in this sort of food as medicine prevention activity. It’s good for people and good for businesses.
It’s a trend that should be sustained.
About the Author
Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, NCAC II is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr. For over 30 years, Norman has practiced in mental health, substance misuse, and EAP settings. He has also worked in leadership positions in both public and private sector behavioral health organizations. An author of four books, he is frequently called on for presentations and as a panelist to share his expertise and experience as a mental health professional.
For over 30 years Espyr, has provided innovative mental health solutions to organizations operating under some of the most challenging conditions. Espyr’s portfolio of customized counseling, coaching and consulting solutions help people and organizations achieve their full potential by providing mental health support and driving positive behavioral change. For more information on how Espyr can help your organization, call Espyr at 888-570-3479 or click here.
Insurers Add Food to Coverage Menu as way to improve health.
January 23, 2021
Hunger in America