Healthy Food Prescriptions Could Save Billions In Healthcare
While doctors commonly prescribe medication for various ailments, a new study suggests that healthy food prescriptions could actually improve one’s health as well as save more than $100 billion in healthcare costs.
The CDC reports that 86% of annual healthcare costs in the U.S. are driven by chronic diseases (1). In fact, U.S. healthcare expenditures have tripled in the last 50 years. Medicare and Medicaid are healthcare programs in the US that help to cover medical costs,
“Medicare and Medicaid are the two largest healthcare programs in the U.S., together covering one in three Americans and accounting for 1 in every 4 dollars in the entire federal budget,” explained Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, study author and dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.
Medicare is a federal health insurance program responsible for young people with disabilities, older people over 65 and those with permanent kidney failure. Medicaid, on the other hand, is a federal and state program that aids individuals with limited income and resources. According to CMS statistics, Medicare had covered approximately 57 million people in 2016 and it had accounted for 15% of the federal budget in 2017 (2). As healthcare costs continue to rise, it is estimated that Medicare’s spending habits will likely reach 18% by 2028.
Researchers at Tufts University believe that healthcare programs should cover fruits and vegetable costs. In doing so, they would lower a large number of chronic disease cases which, in turn, would reduce healthcare costs.
For the study, the researchers used a nationally representative data set of US adults aged between 35 and 80 years who were enrolled in Medicare and/or Medicaid. The team then established two scenarios: one in which Medicare/Medicaid would cover 30% of the cost of fruits and vegetables. The other scenario had them covering fruits, vegetables, seafood, whole grains, plant oils, and other healthy foods.
To achieve this, the team used data from recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, published sources, and meta-analyses. They then applied the two scenarios to each of the different samples and assessed the effects at 5-, 10-, and 20- year horizons.
The study revealed that if each scenario was implemented, the test subjects would rely less on healthcare.
The first scenario would prevent 1.93 million cardiovascular events and 350,000 deaths which would then save $40 billion in healthcare costs. The second scenario, on the other hand, would prevent 3.28 million cardiovascular events, 620,000 deaths, and 120,000 cases of diabetes – which would then cut US healthcare costs by $100 billion.
“We found that encouraging people to eat healthy foods in Medicare and Medicaid — healthy food prescriptions — could be as or more cost-effective as other common interventions, such as preventative drug treatments for hypertension or high cholesterol,“ said the co-first author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at Friedman School, Yujin Lee, Ph.D.
Healthy food as medicine
“These new findings support the concept of [the public initiative] Food is Medicine: That innovative programs to encourage and reimburse healthy eating can and should be integrated into the healthcare system,” said Dr. Mozaffarian.
The study is part of an initiative (Food-PRICE) where a collaboration of international researchers set out to improve the health of the U.S. population by identifying possible cost-effective nutrition strategies. In fact, the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill provides funding for these kinds of approaches to health through its Produce Prescription Program.
Food prescriptions can provide fresh fruits and vegetables to individuals who either cannot afford them or simply have limited access to them. Additionally, as healthy food can sometimes be costly, food prescriptions are also an added incentive for individuals to adopt a healthier form of eating. Small, separate studies have noted improve blood sugar levels and decreased BMI in individuals who had participated in food prescription programs (3, 4).
While the Tufts University study does highlight the potential effects that food prescriptions could have, they do admit that their study’s limitations,
“The fruit and vegetable program has been implemented through some nonprofit and private insurance programs, showing an increased intake of fruits and vegetables and an improvement in measurable outcomes such as [the ingestion of] glucose, cholesterol, and triglycerides,” Lee said. “However, programs like these have not been implemented at scale, nor evaluated for cost-effectiveness.”
You can read more about the study here.