Doctors might soon begin giving out a prescription for fruits and vegetables to lower a patient’s risk of chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
In a new study, public health experts found that healthy food prescription, which will be covered by health insurance, would improve overall health and could even be more cost-effective in the long run.
The researchers modeled the health and economic benefits of healthy food prescriptions that will be covered by Medicare and Medicaid. They used a computer simulation that generated sample representatives of the Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries and utilized data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, published sources, and meta-analyses.
Two scenarios were modeled: Medicare/Medicaid covered 30 percent of fruit and vegetable purchases and Medicare/Medicaid covered 30 percent of fruit, vegetable, whole grain, nut/seed, seafood, and plant-based oil purchases.
They found that the fruit and vegetable incentive prevented 1.93 million cases of cardiovascular disease among beneficiaries. Meanwhile, among the group with a broader healthy food incentive, 3.28 million cardiovascular disease cases were prevented.
Insurance coverage of whole grains and nuts/seeds also prevented 120,000 instances of diabetes.
More Cost-Effective Than Medicine
Both models also significantly reduced healthcare utilization. The fruit and vegetable incentive and the broader healthy food coverage resulted in $39.7 billion and $100.2 billion in savings respectively.
“We found that encouraging people to eat healthy foods in Medicare and Medicaid — healthy food prescriptions — could be as or more cost-effective as other common interventions, such as preventative drug treatments for hypertension or high cholesterol,” stated Yujin Lee, a postdoctoral fellow at Tuft University and a first author of the study.
The findings add to the growing evidence that subsidizing and prescribing healthy food could be equally or even more cost-effective in the long run than regularly purchasing drugs for chronic illnesses. While the study is based on models rather than a trial, more research is underway.
Lee mentioned the 2018 Farm Bill includes the Produce Prescription Program that will dedicate $25 million into evaluating the benefits that can be reaped from healthy food prescription. California is also allotting $6 million for a study that will provide meals tailored to a patient’s diagnosis.
The study was published in PLOS Medicine on Tuesday, March 19, 2019.