A prescription for healthier meals? Geisinger finds it could help diabetes management

When it comes to improving patient health while curbing costs, the answer could be a simple as a prescription for healthier food.

That's what Geisinger Health System found by launched a program called "Fresh Food Farmacy" to help diabetic patients better control their disease, according to a blog post from NEJM Catalyst. 

In a pilot of the program, the system enrolled 95 patients with type 2 diabetes that was poorly controlled and who screened positive for food insecurity, according to the post. These patients were provided with fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains that would feed them and their families two meals a day for five days per week.  

In addition, recipes and menus were provided, as the participants may not be familiar with all the ingredients they were given. 

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In 18 months, patients enrolled in the program saw their HbA1c levels decrease, decreasing risk of death or serious complications by 40%, according to the post.

At the same time, 37 participants were also enrolled in Geisinger's health plan and claims data for those patients shows an 80% decrease in average annual costs—from $240,000 to $48,000 annually per member. 

The health system paid about $2,400 per participant, to provide the food, leading to significant savings, according to the post. 

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"Fresh Food Farmacy" is one of the first projects launched as part of Geisinger's "radical" approach to population health. The Danville, Pennsylvania-based health system formed Springboard Health last year in Scranton, with the goal of improving total community health.

"When it comes to the social determinants of health, we know there are many more causes impacting the health of a population than access to quality medical care," CEO David Feinberg said of the program. "We want to transform healthcare at its core by focusing on preventative care, behavioral health and economic growth." 

The Springboard Health program also plans to include further pilots that take on other social determinants, such as homelessness. 

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Geisinger has also put a focus on precision medicine as it tries out to new models of care. The system launched the National Precision Medicine Initiative last year, with internationally known genetics researcher Huntington F. Willard taking the helm earlier this year. 

One of Willard's first projects is to spearhead the launch of the system's new Precision Health Innovation Lab, which will leverage data and research across its sites of care.