Colorado organizations revolutionize medical approach through food - Denver Business Journal (2024)

Doctor-ordered prescriptions for healthy foods aren't yet the norm, but more Colorado health care organizations are singing its praises. As they do, opportunities have materialized for the state's private players and startups.

The new movement, dubbed “food as medicine,” has garnered enough local followers to merit the state’s first-ever summit on the topic in November. The event was hosted by Project Angel Heart, a Denver nonprofit that has prepared and delivered medically tailored meals for the last 30 years to people living with severe illnesses.

In 2018, the organization was producing about 500,000 meals per year for people living in the Denver metro area and Colorado Springs, said Owen Ryan, Project Angel Heart's president and CEO. Following large expansions over the last several years and a new one that stretches delivery into Fort Collins, Ryan said he expects to increase that number to 800,000.

Colorado organizations revolutionize medical approach through food - Denver Business Journal (1)

Seth McConnell | Denver Business Journal

Also in 2018, the organization conducted a study on its clients before, during and after they received meal deliveries. It found a 13% reduction in hospital readmissions and a decrease in cost by an average of 24% for those living with chronic illnesses.

Other local organizations echoed similar studies and supportive evidence at the summit, underscoring Ryan's suspicion that many groups here don't realize they are part of a much larger network working to formalize the use of nutritious foods for medical purposes.

"Part of this was for those groups — raising awareness of, hey, you're part of something bigger and we want to support what you're doing," he said.

Colorado's Department of Health Care Policy and Finance confirmed at the event that it is analyzing the feasibility of Medicaid coverage for home-delivered, medically tailored meals, signaling that Colorado could be at the precipice of a major treatment option.

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Seth McConnell | Denver Business Journal

"That could be a really big game changer," Ryan said. "Really opening up the pool of people who can access this can have a really big impact on how much the state is paying for hospital bills and prescriptions, etcetera."

Starting at the source

Most players in health care are already trending toward more holistic care. Many including in Colorado are using the buzzwords "value-based care" as a way to describe a departure from the old model of paying for each medical treatment individually and toward a structure that prioritizes health outcomes that are of value to the patient.

Enter nutritious food, long a hallmark component of a healthy lifestyle and the ability to ward off everything from obesity to cancer.

Whether or not a person has access to that food is one of the key predictors of their ability to get and stay healthy, said Annie Lee, president and CEO of Colorado Access, the state's largest Medicaid plan.

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Walnut Street Group LLC/ Provided by Colorado Access

Those predictors, called social determinants of health, are at the top of the radar for nonprofit and government organizations like Lee's.

"Access to food is a critical element of understanding how is this person going to be supported and getting to their best health and wellness," she said.

The bulk of work for Colorado Access then becomes coordinating the needs of the patient with available resources, Lee said.

The needs of patients enrolled in Colorado Access are probably different from those who get insurance through their employer. But Wendolyn Gozansky, vice president and chief quality officer for Kaiser Permanente in Colorado, said her organization has also found that screening patients for things like access to food has been a game changer.

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Seth McConnell | Denver Business Journal

"Our members are insured [so] people really think there can't be a significant food insecurity problem," Gozansky said. "The answer is, there is."

The organization has screened about 30% of its members for needs like food insecurity and has come to further embrace supporting data on medically tailored meals, which Gozansky describes as a more niche need compared to food insecurity as a whole.

"The idea that when we're focusing on better meals after a hospitalization, that is the tip of the iceberg," she said.

The food as medicine market

While proponents say the evidence is there to support food as medicine, private players have been relatively slow to the scene.

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Seth McConnell | Denver Business Journal

Most of that has to do with having an effective and scalable model that pays off, said Ryan with Project Angel Heart. There is also still more to be done in terms of shifting cultural values to embrace solutions like food — and the shedding of stigma that comes from receiving food assistance.

"I think sometimes people see food specifically through the charity lens, and they're used to the old kind of food pantry model," he said. "That's not really what most of us are doing right now."

Project Angel Heart now has a waitlist of about 600 people — an issue that is more a question of monetary resource rather than infrastructure, Ryan said.

"Our model works because it's volunteer driven," he said. Project Angel Heart has a team of 45 and about 5,000 annual volunteers, Ryan said. "The food marketplace — it's really expensive."

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Seth McConnell | Denver Business Journal

While Project Angel Heart addresses a relatively specific need in the food as medicine space, there are many more holes to fill, Ryan said.

Some local companies think they can fit.

Denver-based startup Bitewell announced in October that the company is launching the first digital food 'farmacy' on the market.

The company, which says it is the first corporate food health benefits provider, will incorporate an AI pharmacist to help provide patients with fresh or frozen food that aligns with a physician’s prescription.

Because food prescriptions can be vague, Bitewell hopes to translate the food prescription into groceries, restaurant meals and meal kits on its platform.

Centennial-based nData Services is another startup hoping to ease the challenges associated with getting fresh and healthy foods into the hands of those who need them.

Sam Jonas, the company's co-founder and CEO, told the Denver Business Journal that nData is partnering with the National Association of Convenience Stores to help consumers who are beneficiaries of food access programs to use their benefits in their stores.

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nData Services

NData works on the technology that translates the universal and digital 8112 coupon to a QR code that can be linked to a variety of food as medicine programs and used by consumers on their phones.

While large retailers like Walmart and Kroger have begun to adopt food as medicine applications, the smaller stores — often the only ones in a food desert — have yet to find a way to take advantage, Jonas said.

In September, he estimated that nData would be live with about 130,000 convenience stores nationwide.

Jonas said his company is getting ahead of a movement that is fast gaining momentum. Much work has been done by smaller community organizations, but larger players are just beginning to take notice.

"It's the combination of the move towards outcome-based healthcare ... The need for finding ways to reduce health care costs," Jonas said. "I mean, it's such a Rubik's cube and so preventative care fits right with outcome-based health care."

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The article delves into the growing movement of utilizing food as medicine within Colorado's healthcare landscape. It showcases the evolving paradigm where healthcare providers are acknowledging the significance of nutrition in improving health outcomes, particularly for individuals managing chronic illnesses. Let's break down the concepts embedded in this piece:

  1. Food as Medicine: This concept emphasizes the therapeutic potential of food in preventing and managing health conditions. It's not merely about eating nutritiously but tailoring specific diets to address medical needs.

  2. Project Angel Heart: A Denver-based nonprofit specializing in preparing and delivering medically tailored meals to individuals facing severe illnesses. Their efforts have yielded positive results, including reduced hospital readmissions and decreased healthcare costs.

  3. Medicaid Coverage for Medically Tailored Meals: The potential inclusion of these meals under Medicaid coverage hints at a significant shift in healthcare policies, potentially widening access to such nutritional interventions.

  4. Social Determinants of Health: Factors beyond clinical care, such as access to food, housing, education, etc., significantly influence one's health outcomes. Addressing these determinants becomes pivotal in providing holistic healthcare.

  5. Value-Based Care: A model focusing on the value derived from healthcare services rather than the volume of services rendered, aiming for better patient outcomes.

  6. Food Insecurity: The article highlights the prevalence of food insecurity even among insured individuals, emphasizing the importance of screening for such issues within healthcare systems.

  7. Startups and Private Players: Emerging businesses, like Bitewell and nData Services, are leveraging technology and innovative models to bridge the gap between prescribed food and its accessibility.

  8. Holistic Healthcare Approach: Both smaller community organizations and larger entities like Kaiser Permanente are increasingly adopting a holistic approach by considering social determinants like food access in their healthcare strategies.

  9. Challenges in Implementation: Despite the evident benefits, challenges remain, such as cultural perceptions around receiving food assistance, costs associated with these programs, and the need for scalable and efficient models.

The article paints a picture of a transforming healthcare landscape in Colorado, where the focus is shifting from treating illnesses reactively to incorporating proactive measures centered around nutrition and holistic care. The integration of food as a therapeutic tool within healthcare seems to be gaining traction, offering potential benefits for both patients and the healthcare system at large.

Colorado organizations revolutionize medical approach through food - Denver Business Journal (2024)


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