Catholic Health forges partnerships to fight food insecurity

Dr. Patrick O’Shaughnessy, DO, MBA, is president and chief executive officer at Catholic Health, where he is passionate about extending the organization’s healing mission to help people live healthier lives. A proponent of population health management, his priorities include addressing the social determinants of health with a focus on alleviating food insecurity. Here, Dr. O’Shaughnessy explains how Catholic Health is combating food insecurity in Long Island and shares strategies for other health systems looking to do the same.

Why is food insecurity an important issue for you and Catholic Health?

Dr. O: Food is medicine, and if we are truly going to bend the disease curve in healthcare, we must start with what we eat. It is proven that eating the wrong foods over long periods of time will accelerate disease development. In fact, in Long Island 1 in 4 adults face food insecurity. That’s more than 218,000 people, including nearly 80,000 children. As a physician, I’ve seen the direct impact on health. Adults in households with food insecurity are 40% likelier to be diagnosed with a chronic condition such as diabetes, a stroke, high blood pressure, cancer, arthritis and kidney disease. So, we’re committed as a health system to not only managing disease and providing state-of-the-art care to all communities we serve but also to getting upstream of disease.

What is Catholic Health doing to combat food insecurity, specifically in Long Island?

Dr. O: We are diligently working to identify and support people who are food insecure. When people come into our emergency departments (ED) for their acute or chronic condition, we’re screening vital signs, and we consider food insecurity to be a soft vital sign. We’ve built screening into our electronic health record to ask patients in the ED, ‘How many times in the last 12 months did you feel that you did not have enough food to eat?’ We also do that in our ambulatory network and our physician practices.

We are also working with community-based organizations to address the problem. We’ve partnered with Catholic Charities, Island Harvest Food Bank and a local university, Adelphi University, to pull together students, build a program and expand access to food banks. We have stocked our EDs with to-go bags of non-perishable food so that when people come in who are dealing with food insecurity, not only are we able to plug them in with services that could potentially help them longer term but we can also treat the immediate crisis by providing healthy food they can take home.

When did you launch this program, and what has been the impact?

Dr. O: While we’ve been addressing food insecurity since 2017, our expanded program was launched in August. We are tracking outcome data, and we expect to see improvements in overall health and well-being over time. Anecdotally, we’re receiving positive feedback that the food is getting to the folks who need it. They’re being plugged into community-based organizations dedicated to this work, whether it’s a food bank or other agencies. In the long term, the overall impact is significant. Nationally published data shows that food insecurity adds 11% to the healthcare costs of older adults.

What advice do you have for other hospital and health system executives for addressing food insecurity in their communities?

Dr. O: First, open your eyes to it. This exists in your market, too, especially post-COVID. Second, work with other community-based organizations. We health systems have an opportunity to partner with our physician practices and our emergency departments to screen for food insecurity, intervene and make referrals to food banks or agencies offering resources, which exist in every market. Many colleges and their departments of Science and Nutrition are looking to help build programs as well. It’s vital to connect to these subject matter experts who have the access, funding and resources to make an impact. But something everyone can do is start with screening. By collecting electronic medical data or partnering with your local public health offices, you can get a sense by community or by ZIP code where the greatest need is – and make it part of your community outreach plan.

Health systems work hard to give back and support our communities. Addressing food insecurity is a powerful way to do that. And, along the way, you might prevent someone from developing a chronic disease, delay the onset of a chronic disease or prevent a return visit to an emergency department.