L to R: moderator Dr. Thomas Hawes, managing director for Sandbox Industries; Rick Born, CEO of Aetna Better Health of Louisiana; Dr. Julia Jenkins, medical director of UnityPoint Accountable Care; Dr. Jennifer Avegno, Director of the New Orleans Department of Health; Dr. Sarah Hallberg, medical director of Virta Health; Dr. Timothy Harlan, executive director of the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine

These days, everyone’s talking about the social determinants of health. Startups and large health systems alike are tackling examples like housing, education and transportation issues. And then there’s food insecurity. A lack of access to affordable and nutritious food can greatly impact an individual’s health.

At the MedCity INVEST Pop Health conference in New Orleans on May 22, panelists discussed why we should shift our dollars toward working on food access issues.

Dr. Sarah Hallberg, medical director of Virta Health, noted that we have typically approached disease by paying for patients’ medicines and working to ensure medication adherence. This, she said, is “because medicines are profitable.”

But she posed a question: “What is going to be the most cost-efficient thing — to continue to prescribe medications that we’re all going to bear the cost of (especially in the underserved population) or to give them food … to prevent the disease?”

Rather than sending patients home with a bunch of prescriptions, she asked, what if we sent them home with a food delivery option?

This idea of feeding patients healthy options could help us avoid costs. “We have to really switch our focus to this whole idea of cost avoidance,” Hallberg said.

Fellow panelist Dr. Timothy Harlan has a tie to food as well. In addition to serving as associate dean for clinical services at Tulane University School of Medicine, he is the executive director of the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine, a teaching kitchen operated by Tulane.

Harlan also said that we can save money through food. We can help people of a lower socioeconomic status get nutritious food or teach and others them how to eat healthier.

But food issues don’t only impact people of a certain socioeconomic status.

“I think the answer for food is it touches pretty much every patient we see in some manner and fashion and we just have not well-equipped ourselves from a resource management standpoint but also an intellectual and educational standpoint to deal with that,” Harlan said.

Photo: Twitter user Jeanette R. Weiland (@JeanetteWeiland)

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