The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on the impact that social determinants of health have on an individual’s total wellbeing and there is one area that has a particularly significant impact: food security. According to Feeding America, 50 million people – including more than 17 million children – may face hunger in the U.S. as a result of the pandemic. Food security is a key component in establishing healthy eating habits, and health plans can play an important role in equipping members with tools to access healthy foods – something that is needed now more than ever.
Here are three key tactics health plans can employ to help members access nutritious food and create conscious lifestyle changes.
Leverage data and analytics to identify members at riskIn times of large upheaval, health plans must know when to adjust their strategy. At the beginning of the pandemic, as the world navigated issues like proper safety and hygiene, food insecurity wasn’t top of mind for many. However, as the pandemic raged on, the resultant economic shutdown led to unprecedented unemployment rates, which naturally led to increases in food insecurity.
Payers can use consumer data and predictive analytics to segment which members may need resources based on factors like age, gender and income. But it’s important to go beyond demographic data. Payers should invest in a data repository to gain insight into potential access issues related to food, transportation and technology. Paying close attention to social determinants of health, like ability to drive or proximity to a grocery store, can also help predict who is at highest risk of being food insecure which, in turn, can help a plan know which resources to offer to those members.
Educate members on the how and whyWhile diabetes and heart disease are two of the dominant drivers for Covid-19 morbidity, a balanced diet plays a considerable role in how these conditions can be managed. Given that the general public is aware of the risk factors that accompany unhealthy eating habits, it is vital to share educational materials with members that offer solutions on how to reduce their risk for these conditions and why it is so important.
Though basic education is imperative, health plans must do more than simply educate members about risk factors and urge them to change their eating habits. They need to take an active role in supporting sustainable behavior change. Providing interactive and personalized programs supports long-term changes – and better health outcomes. One way to do this is by offering members digital health programs they can access at home. For example, offering members a wide array of ways to help them make positive lifestyle changes such as eating healthier, increasing physical activity, reducing stress and helping members access healthy recipes and food.
Communicate the available resources that support healthy eating
With travel and social distancing rules in place last year the digital health and telehealth industry has boomed. Since the majority of Americans have access to smartphones and tablets – as well as an influx of free time – there’s no better time to offer telenutrition.
For those who struggle with the proactive planning that goes into purchasing and preparing nutritious foods, providing virtual resources to help with meal planning and creating a healthy grocery list can also be great options. Even better – integrating the two with programs that make it simple for members to turn their grocery lists into a curbside pick-up or online delivery order.
Food subsidy programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are also available to help members. Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced 47 states are participating in a program to allow SNAP recipients to use their aid to purchase food online. Health plans can help spur greater adoption of this program by letting eligible members know they can use SNAP for online grocery purchases.
Additionally, educating members on how to compare cart prices at different online stores can create a world of a difference in what enters their pantry. Pricing at larger, discount chains varies greatly from a regional grocery chain. So much so that a family can be fed considerably more – and with more nutritious foods – depending on which store they choose to shop at.
Another option may be to provide vulnerable seniors with home-delivered, fully-prepared meals at no cost upon returning home after being treated in a hospital. Offering a variety of nutritional and condition-appropriate meals delivered to the homes of members who require additional support can help address food insecurity concerns and reduce caregiver burden.
Each of these options should be communicated as part of a multi-channel strategy that aims to incentivize members by connecting with them at the right place and time and in the right format. Pairing this strategy with consumer data and predictive analytics can ensure that the members are receiving communications from their health plans through channels they are likely to respond to, which can drive increased member engagement.
Undoubtedly, the stress that has accompanied the pandemic has affected everyone’s eating habits in some way. Whether it be skipping lunch due to remote work stressors, or not having the funds to purchase healthy ingredients due to unemployment, this past year has proven that lifestyle changes are not linear and food security is not always a given. When health plans strategize how to best serve their member base they can create real change in members’ total health and wellbeing which may help make a difference between an ICU visit and a mild Covid-19 case.
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