Written by Dhiren Patel, PharmD

The CDC estimates 60% of US adults have a chronic disease, and 40% have two or more. It is the leading cause of death and disability and a driver of the nation’s more than $3.8 trillion in annual healthcare costs. Four main risk factors have been identified for preventable chronic diseases: tobacco use, lack of physical activity, excessive alcohol use, and poor nutrition.

Proper nutrition is extremely important in maintaining baseline health and reducing one’s risk for chronic disease. A healthful diet can help people diagnosed with chronic conditions manage their diseases and prevent complications. Unfortunately, food insecurity has become a leading nutrition issue, with 50 million Americans (over 14%) identifying as food insecure in 2013. Since then, that number has only grown.

Research shows that those with unhealthy diets may have a relatively greater number of chronic conditions. Given this data, a core intervention strategy across all evidence-based treatment plans to prevent chronic disease includes the promotion of healthy lifestyle behaviors, including improved diet. In addition, it is estimated that programs designed to help patients meet basic nutritional needs can translate to $200 per month in healthcare savings per patient.

Moreover, increasing access to nutrition is essential in helping patients overcome unmet needs and keeping individuals engaged in their healthcare. Oftentimes, patients with poorer nutrition are less engaged, and research shows that adults experiencing food insecurity are significantly more likely than their food-secure counterparts to delay or forgo medical care because of cost concerns. Studies have also shown that patients who are more engaged with their providers are more proactive, meaning they may be more likely to schedule checkups, stay up to date on vaccines, and undergo testing on schedule.

Given the obvious benefits of nutrition to health, should health plans incorporate nutritional and food access strategies into their services for members with chronic conditions? Based on our experience at Pack Health providing these services to health plans, the answer is yes, provided the strategy incorporates three key steps.