A new research report published in Health Affairs suggests that serving higher quality customized foods may actually reduce their stay and healthcare costs.
The Boston-based nonprofit, Community Servings, has been serving patients with chronic diseases meals like chickpea curries, quinoa salads, and turkey chili’s for nearly three decades. Each meal is specifically tailored to each recipient's medical needs.
Researchers found that people who received medically tailored meals were less likely to use pricey health care services, such as ambulances and emergency rooms. And participants in the program were also less likely to be admitted to the hospital.
Community Servings’ clients often have multiple chronic conditions that come with special dietary needs. Dietitians design an appropriate meal plan for each patient, picking and choosing from elements of more than a dozen different medical diets, from low potassium to dairy-free and delivers them once a week.
University of North Carolina nutrition researcher Dr. Seth Berkowitz and his colleagues followed 133 patients who were eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid — signaling a degree of both medical complexity and social complexity, the researchers say — who received either medically tailored meals or non-tailored meals, which were delivered but weren’t designed with each patient’s specific diet needs in mind. The researchers compared their health outcomes to roughly 1,000 control patients who didn’t get meals delivered over a 6 month period.
“We saw there was lower use of big-ticket health care services,” said Berkowitz. Participants in both meal programs had fewer ER visits and ambulance trips. But only patients on medically tailored meals had fewer inpatient admissions.
“To me, that’s signaling people are healthier,” said Berkowitz. “And it’s sort of a nice bonus that we see lower health care costs associated with this.”
Subtracting the cost of the meal programs, the medically tailored meals were associated with 15 percent lower health care costs, and non-tailored food was associated with 1 percent lower health care costs.