Implementing public programs to supplement food security in low-income patients can help reduce hospital use within that population, according to a study published in both BMC Geriatrics and Population Health Management. This data suggests that addressing the social determinants of health can directly improve health outcomes.
Currently, nearly one-third of senior patients live on income less than 200 percent of the poverty line, a fact which the Maryland-based research team said impacts that healthcare industry. Low-income patients have a higher propensity for utilizing hospitals and the emergency department.
Previous efforts to meet health needs include expanding access to primary care, but researchers added that caring for social needs is also essential for health improvement.
“Excess hospital utilization in this population was once believed to be preventable by improving health care access,” the research team said. “However, disparities exist among older adults who have health insurance through Medicare, and are not attributable to access to primary care providers.”
Previous research has suggested that 85 percent of patient health is determined by the social determinants of health, as opposed to genetic makeup or other health-related factors such as healthcare access.
The social determinants of health include social factors like housing, education level, and food security, among others.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one such program suitable for addressing food security. The federally-funded program has proven effective in expanding food access for low-income individuals, and shown that food access may be tied to health outcomes, the team posited.
“By targeting financial support toward food needs, SNAP can improve access to a higher quality diet for food insecure adults,” the researchers explained.
“There is evidence of reduced caloric intake, poorer dietary quality, and greater risk of hypoglycemia for low-income adults at the end of the month when funds run low,” the research team continued. “Therefore, greater SNAP benefits may facilitate chronic disease management for nutrition-sensitive conditions, which may account for evidence of reduced chronic disease hospital utilization.”
The team looked at nearly 6,900 patients over the age of 65 who were dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid between 2009 and 2012. Matching data about days spent in the hospital, healthcare costs, and emergency department visits with SNAP enrollment data showed that the program has an impact on healthcare.
SNAP benefits reduced the likelihood for hospitalization by 14 percent, and reduced the likelihood of each individual day in the hospital by 10 percent.
The program also reduced the likelihood of nursing home admissions by 23 percent, and reduced each additional day in the nursing home by 8 percent.
SNAP benefits had no statistically significant effect on ED utilization, but the researchers maintained that the results nonetheless showed great potential for SNAP in healthcare.
Specifically, the results proved that more than just increasing access to care can help reduce hospital and ED utilization.
“It is notable that all had access to both Medicare and Medicaid because policy makers have increased access to health care for low-income groups thinking that that alone would reduce high hospital utilization in low-income groups,” the researchers pointed out.
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