Op-Ed: A New Prescription for the Health Care Industry? Fresh Food | Healthcare of Tomorrow

In 1902, Thomas Edison predicted: “The doctor of the future will give no medicine but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.”

That future is now. But rather than focus on preventing diseases, modern medicine has evolved to treat symptoms.

Over the last century, the health care industry transformed by dramatic advances in science and technology. During that journey, the American diet has swung like a pendulum from the simple, un-processed nutrition of our pre-industrial days to highly processed, high-fat, sugar-infused dependencies. As the fast food generations grew up, health care costs rose and treatments were developed to address diet-related illnesses. Today, the pendulum is swinging back. Fresh food is trendy and the appetite for eating well is growing.

It’s an ideal time for hospitals and health centers to leverage healthy dining trends to bring health care costs down. In fact, a 2013 Union of Concerned Scientists report found that the cost of treating cardiovascular disease could fall by $17 billion a year if Americans ate the USDA recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables.

As we find ourselves confronting the role of hospitals in our future, we should once again consider Edison’s wisdom and be grateful that in 2015 more and more hospitals are finding that fresh food is good medicine and good business.

The Nutrition Prescription

Nutrition and food are absolutely critical to the healing process and one of the most efficient contributors to reduced hospital readmissions. In our work with hospitals around the country we are finding the most effective education process involves both patients and health care providers. Registered dietitians and nutritionists are collaborating with nurses and physicians to change the conversations from what patients cannot eat to discussions about what they can eat while in the hospital and, importantly, when they are discharged.

A truly patient-centered care model empowers patients to make their own menu selections and provides individualized nutrition education. At Griffin Hospital, a Planetree designated hospital in Derby, Connecticut, we found the extensive list of specialized diets created confusion for prescribing physicians and patients alike. Restrictive heart-healthy diets were being ordered more than 25 percent of the time, and in many cases were unnecessary. But when physicians were educated about the nutritional content of the standard fresh food menu being served in relation to the American Heart Association heart healthy diet guidelines, they agreed to liberalize sodium levels, saturated fat and caffeine. The results: Strong positive trends in patient satisfaction numbers and enhanced patient education in support of the hospital’s goals to reduced readmissions.

It’s important to teach patients while they are in the hospital that eating healthy and having food taste delicious actually go together. This is helpful in combatting both obesity and malnutrition, since one third of patients admitted to the hospital are malnourished. Prescribing an appetizing, healthy diet during a hospital stay plays a significant role in the speed of discharge and improved health in the future.

The Population Health Halo Effect

Hospitals are also becoming a critical delivery system for improving population health. The Affordable Care Act has lessened the need for hospitals to provide subsidized care and raised community outreach expectations with the Community Health Needs Assessment – creating an opportunity for increased focus on initiatives that promote prevention.

Currently Americans only eat about half the amount of fruits and vegetables recommended by federal dietary guidelines. Many low income populations want to make healthy food choices for themselves and their families but they face accessibility challenges. In Trenton, New Jersey, for example, St. Francis Medical Center is located in a food desert with limited access to grocery stores. Our Patient Experience Manager visited local small markets and bodegas that accepted EBT cards and created a full-week menu of healthy, fresh food for a family of four that cost under $100. She created recipes with the ingredients and the hospital staff now uses the tool for community outreach and gives it to patients upon discharge.

Hospitals throughout the country are also taking a renewed interest in improving public health by supporting local food systems. At Metro Health hospital in Michigan a streamlined farm-to-hospital program sources products from within 250 miles of the hospital for the kitchen and for weekly farmers’ markets. The chefs also created a large on-site community garden and work with a team of volunteers and students from the local YMCA to manage the planting, growth and harvest of the garden.

The opportunities are endless to improve community access to more healthful foods and drive down long-term health expenditures from diet-related disease, while strengthening the local economy.

Addressing Outpatient Trends with New Opportunities

As more healthcare delivery is being shifted to outpatient settings, hospital administrators are increasingly looking at new ways to drive revenue. Many are upgrading their dining operations to extend the reach beyond visiting patients and their families into the communities they serve. To succeed, the value and quality of the dining experience must meet or exceed what’s available at restaurants in the community.

Many hospital dining directors today promote their café weekly specials and catering services to local businesses and community groups and are operating at peak capacity because the price is right and the food is fresh. Fauquier Health in Virginia hosts a popular Senior Supper Club every Tuesday and Thursday, offering affordable, delicious multi-course meals and nutrition education. Baptist Easley Hospital in South Carolina just reopened their café after a four month renovation to the delight of weekly Sunday churchgoers. Making freshly prepared foods available to the public builds stronger community connections while supporting long and short term growth opportunities.

The overall health of our population depends on our healthcare delivery systems adopting operating principles that more seamlessly integrate nutrition experts, including culinarians and dietitians. For hospital systems to evolve and embrace this coordinated approach, the paradigm shift must start with leadership – not because of an ACA mandate, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Richard B. Schenkel is the founder and CEO of Unidine Corporation.