Food for Thought: Nutrition Programs Reduce Hospital Visits and Readmissions by Vulnerable Populations

Friday, August 18th, 2017
This post was written by Patricia Donovan

Malnutrition is a social determinant of health that negatively impacts health outcomes.

It’s a difficult statistic to digest: one in three people enter the hospital malnourished or at risk of malnutrition, a state that impacts their recovery and increases their risk of health complications and rehospitalizations.

Two studies this week highlight the clinical benefits of addressing patients’ nutrition needs before and during hospital stays as well as savings that can result from identification of social determinants of health (SDOH) like access to nutrition that drive 85 percent of health outcomes.

In the first, a study of elderly Maryland residents by Benefits Data Trust, a national nonprofit based in Philadelphia, found that when it comes to low-income seniors, access to quality food via food stamps can also save money by reducing the number and duration of hospital visits and nursing home admissions.

In the second, research published in American Health & Drug Benefits journal and supported by Abbott found that when Advocate Health Care implemented a nutrition care program at four of its Chicago area hospitals, it showed more than $4.8 million in cost savings due to shorter hospital stays and lower readmission rates.

The Benefits Data Trust research found that participation by low-income seniors in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cut their odds of hospital admissions by 14 percent. The food stamps also reduced the need for ER visits by 10 percent, and cut their likelihood of going into a nursing home by nearly one quarter.

Finally, SNAP participation also led to an 8 to 10 percent drop in the number of days a patient who was admitted remained in one of these facilities.

As a result, hospitals and health care systems such as Advocate Health Care are looking at the value of nutrition to improve care and help patients get back to living a healthier life.

Starting in 2014, Advocate Health Care, the largest health system in Illinois and one of the largest accountable care organizations (ACO) in the country, implemented two models of a nutrition care program for patients at risk of malnutrition. The nutrition-focused quality improvement program, which targeted malnourished hospitalized patients, consisted of screening patients with a validated screening tool at admission, rapidly administering oral nutritional supplements, and educating patients on supplement adherence.

The leader in population health found that by doing so, it reduced 30-day readmission rates by 27 percent and the average hospital stay by nearly two days.

More recently, to evaluate the cost-savings of the Advocate approach, researchers used a novel, web-based budget impact model to assess the potential cost savings from the avoided readmissions and reduced time in hospital. Compared to the hospitals’ previous readmission rates and patients’ average length of stay, researchers found that optimizing nutrition care in the four hospitals resulted in roughly $3,800 cost savings per patient treated for malnutrition.

Given the healthcare industry’s appetite for value- and quality-based programs, SDOH screenings and the fortification of nutrition programs in both community and inpatient settings appear to be just what the doctor ordered. However, while a 2017 study on Social Determinants of Health identified widespread adoption of SDOH screenings by providers, it also documented a scarcity of supportive community services for SDOH-positive individuals.

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