How Elevance Health plans to integrate 'food as medicine' across its lines of business

In June, Elevance Health named Kofi Essel, MD, as its first food as medicine program director, signaling a paradigm shift within one of the country's largest healthcare organizations. 

Dr. Essel is a community pediatrician by training, having most recently worked at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C. Before that, he was the director of the culinary medicine program at George Washington University's School of Medicine and Health Sciences. 

He sat down with Becker's to discuss how Elevance is building a food as medicine strategy intended to eventually touch and improve the lives of its more than 47 million members nationwide.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: How do you define "food as medicine" as it relates to your role at Elevance Health?

Dr. Kofi Essel: The definition I've been leading around "food as medicine" are the strategies or interventions that work alongside healthcare and give access to high-quality foods, and a focus on prevention, management and treatment of disease. We also love to center this around health equity and thinking strongly about the importance of high-quality nutrition education as well.

Q: What's your plan to integrate the "food as medicine" concept into Elevance Health's insurance and other product offerings?

KE: We as a company strongly believe in the concept of whole health and really recognizing that the health of our members around the country is far more than what's happening in the four walls of the clinical setting. We also believe that because we get great insight into the lives of our members in a variety of different settings, we are uniquely positioned to be able to respond to their whole health, including socioeconomic and behavioral health backgrounds. Food as medicine fits into this concept because we're thinking about challenges around food and nutrition insecurity, and diet-related chronic diseases. This is a quite prevalent issue across the country, and we're thinking about this through every line of business in Medicaid, commercial and Medicare. 

We've been doing a lot of work in this space as an organization, and our philanthropic arm has committed $30 million over a three-year period to authentic foods as medicine solutions. One of the grantees that we supported in their community based efforts has been Feeding America, the largest umbrella organization for the majority of food banks around the country. They've been doing some phenomenal work creating what we call food pharmacies, which team up with health clinics. We've seen them collect some unique data, so we're really excited about what we expect to see from that partnership in particular. 

I will also say one of the big things that I've been working with our teams around is building our actual strategy. How are we going to incorporate this concept into every line of business? We are getting ready to roll out some pilots because the data is quite clear that these interventions are effective.

Q: Are there emerging trends or innovations in nutritional science that you think can enhance traditional health plans?

EF: The science around food as medicine is emerging and exciting and exists — and the data is quite clear that diet affects disease and health outcomes. There are a few different kinds of food as medicine interventions, such as medically tailored meals, medically tailored groceries and produce prescriptions.

There's also strategies around using federal nutrition programs and other population or community-level policies and programs that we can lean into, including around quality nutrition education. I reviewed one recent study that looked at the power of produce prescription initiatives, which a lot of people have asked me, "What's the point?" I point them to the data: One in 10 adults and children consume enough fruits and vegetables, meaning our consumption of fiber and other nutrients is quite low. 

When families are provided a produce prescription, we see significant changes in hemoglobin A1C, which is a marker for diabetes. We see significant changes in blood pressure and significant improvement in weight management and overall health outcomes. So the data that these interventions can work is a powerful reminder to keep this great work going.

Q: Why should every major healthcare organization employ someone in your role?

EF: When you look at professional guidelines for organizations addressing a variety of different diet-related chronic diseases, one of the first things you're going to see as an intervention option for patients is using lifestyle components such as food as a priority.

Unfortunately, the reality is we as medical providers aren't always given the training that's necessary to be able to engage in these meaningful conversations with our patients and families. It's important to have a paradigm shift in how we incorporate this priority topic into how we engage with members across the country. Having a food as medicine director, or prioritizing food as medicine within an organization, is a key element to improving the health of patients and members. 

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