Meals catering to different health needs could help save lives—and billions of dollars

Around 1.6 million hospitalizations could be avoided if medically tailored meals were expanded.
Nutritious food
Medically tailored meals offer a lifeline for the ill and homebound. Deposit Photos

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” or so the old saying goes. Nutrition remains a powerful tool to prevent certain types of illness. The right food also play a role in helping serious or diet-sensitive diseases, like diabetes, HIV, and heart failure. A common way for those with illnesses like these is through medically tailored meals (MTM) customized and prepared for a patient’s needs. These meals can also be used for those facing food insecurity and those recently discharged from the hospital.

Meals catered to specific medical needs also have the potential to save a lot of money.

A study published today in JAMA Network Open finds that adding more programs that make and deliver MTMs could prevent hospitalizations nationally and save approximately $13.6 billion each year. The study used data from the 2019 Medical Expenditure Survey Panel Survey and other published research on the health impact of MTM programs. It found that implementing more of these programs around the country could also help prevent 1.6 million hospitalizations in addition to the huge cost savings. Most of the cost savings would occur within public programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

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Kurt Hager, a PhD candidate in the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition and Science and Policy program led the study. “Currently, MTMs are not a covered benefit under Medicare or Medicaid, so they remain unavailable to the vast majority of patients who might benefit from them,” Hager said in a press release. “For people with chronic illness and physical limitations that make it difficult for them to shop and cook for themselves, these programs are a highly promising strategy for improving health and well-being. The estimated reductions in hospitalizations and associated cost savings reflect that.”

The majority of MTM programs around the country are run by organizations like Community Servings, God’s Love We Deliver, and Food is Medicine. Representative Jim McGovern, D-Ma has also introduced the Medically Tailored Home-Delivered Meals Demonstration Pilot Act of 2021, a pilot program for the the largest-ever MTM program under Medicare. They are currently funded though a mixture of by grants, donations, and Section 1115 waivers under Medicaid. The meals also often serve those with lower incomes and limited mobility, as well as individuals who regularly experience food insecurity. Most programs deliver five lunches and five dinner per week to eligible patients.

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“Food is not just for prevention–it can be used for treatment for people with debilitating conditions like heart failure, uncontrolled diabetes, HIV, and cancer,” Dariush Mozaffarian, a professor at the Friedman School and senior author on the paper, said in a press release. “With medically tailored meals, patients are treated using the power of food and put on a steady path toward healing. Our study suggests that expanding medically tailored meal programs nationwide—one key recommendation of the new Biden-Harris National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health—would help reverse our ‘sick care’ system, keep people out of the hospital, and save billions of dollars each year.”

Researchers form Tufts University are now working with Community Servings and University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School on a multi-year evaluation of MTM programs in Massachusetts. The work will study how these MTM programs impact obesity, diabetes, nutrition insecurity, and health care utilization in the state.