So, Food is Medicine, What Does that Mean for Pharmacy?

The latest healthcare innovation is decades old, easy-to-understand, and proven to work: food as medicine. Yet, food as medicine is gaining steam as a new trend in the medical community. What does that mean for pharmacy? How does pharmacy support patient healthcare in the realm of “food as medicine?And how do pharmacies leverage the new possibilities opened by this concept? 

What is food as medicine?

Food as medicine, or food is medicine, refers to a philosophical approach to healthcare where food and nutrition are worked into a care plan to support patient health and wellness.

Here are a few examples of how food is medicine can be executed:

  • Medically tailored meal plans to combat chronic conditions
  • Medically guided grocery selection as preventative care
  • Produce prescription programs

We all know preventative care, early detection, and quick intervention are the keys to defeating many chronic conditions in the U.S. Many healthcare experts believe diabetes looms as the next pandemic, and that adopting a food is medicine treatment may help prevent the scope of that potential pandemic from escalating. Going beyond diagnosed diabetes and at-risk or pre-diabetic patients, at its core, food is medicine is becoming successful preventative care. So much so, that payors have started showing interest in developing programs for patients, across multiple risk categories.

What does a food is medicine treatment plan mean for pharmacy?

From a pharmacy perspective, “food is medicine” may seem outside the scope of the industry. However, pharmacy offers a unique chance to provide patient guidance and ongoing support, collaborate with providers to optimize care, and report on successes and opportunities.  Food as medicine may also open the door for pharmacies to provide more clinical services that can improve health outcomes, increase patient satisfaction and loyalty and grow revenue.  

How are payors showing interest in food as medicine?

Since preventing chronic conditions and the high costs associated with them are very important to payors, any low-cost preventative benefits they can offer patients are of interest. Food as medicine fits squarely into that category, offering payors an opportunity to head off future chronic conditions and costs now.

According to McKinsey, much of the payor interest so far revolves around food insecurity. Why? For one, food insecure patients tend to have higher rates of nutrition-affected conditions such as diabetes.

Image Source: McKinsey & Company

Is anyone running a food is medicine program now?

Several large grocery retailers have jumped in feet first with nutritional food programs for their consumers. From rating scales on food’s healthfulness to prescriptive food programs, retailers are leading the way for payors and consumers to take advantage of food as medicine programs.

And consumers are on board as well. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed say that eating the right food can be the best medicine. 

Food is Medicine: The Details

As with any new healthcare trend, there are more questions than answers, so let’s dive right in. 
  1. Who needs a food as medicine program? Often, the folks who can’t afford a new, trend-driven healthcare program are the ones who need it most. Food as medicine may be one to break this mold. Patients on Medicaid and need-driven programs will likely experience the highest return-on-investment from a payor perspective, and gain the most health improvement, yet also face many of the largest challenges. Skip ahead to the nuances and challenges.
  2. Who qualifies for a payor-sponsored food as medicine program? Right now, payors are approaching facets of the programs differently. Medicaid and other plans for economically disadvantaged patients offer the most access to food-driven programs, and “55% percent of Medicare Advantage plans in 2021 offer home-delivered meals or food and produce benefits.” ( 

   Outside of Medicaid, payors are offering other high-risk patients food is medicine benefits, and as the program delivers success, the benefit pool is likely to grow. 

3. What benefits are payors offering?  

  • Home-delivered meals. To combat food insecurity and nutrition deficits, meals delivered directly to the patients are the preferred choice of payors.  
  •  Medically tailored meals. Recently, payors have added medically tailored meals to their benefit offerings. In a medically tailored meal benefit, food that is customized to a person’s medical condition and nutritional needs is delivered to their home several times a week for a specific purpose and duration, often for postoperative or postnatal care.
  • General food services. Finally, some payors offer members generic food services in the form of grocery-store discounts, gift cards, or referrals to food pantries. 

What are the nuances and complications?

This is where food as medicine gets tricky. There are no simple answers to measurement protocols, reimbursement pathways, or keys to patent success. Some key considerations pharmacies must think about are below.  

  1. How do you control consumption? 

  2. How do payors incentivize?

  3. How do you measure success?

  4. What about privacy? 

Stay tuned for the answers to these questions, and more, in an upcoming blog.

What are the tools needed for patient success?

From a retailer’s purview, great marketing puts the right food in front of the right patient at the right time. Packaging up a “5-minute healthy meals” section at the front of the store increases the likelihood of an enrolled patient finding the product, but what happens when they get home? Is there a guided recipe book that helps patients cook the food properly? Are the meals microwavable for the easiest possible outcome? Or are they raw foods meant to be consumed without the aid of cooking appliances? Is it a combination of all three, an easy-to-follow meal plan, recipe book, and fresh food? And what about delivery options? Adding the convenient delivery further increases the likelihood of success. Payors and retailers must work together to identify the best possible solutions and cost considerations. A program that works for payors, providers, and patients. 

What does pharmacy’s role look like?

In one word: support. Pharmacy is here to support providers, retailers, and patients through documentation, regardless of format. However payors choose to move forward, pharmacies and pharmacists supply patients with an accessible, trusted partner for patient education, follow up consultations, monitoring and measurement, and care plan support. A billing-enabled EHR can help pharmacists and pharmacy organizations stay on top of their part of a successful program. 

For example, let’s walk through a newly diagnosed patient with type II diabetes. She is prescribed medication as well as a food program. As an existing patient of your pharmacy, she remembers a message  you had sent about diabetes classes and enrolls. You input the patient into your MTM program, and regularly consult with the patient and tabulate results to send back to collaborative providers and payors. You’ll need to document those results and encounters and be reimbursed for your time as a provider. As you are supporting the food is medicine program, you’re opening your pharmacy up to additional revenue opportunities that positively impact the patient outcomes.  

“Pharmacists can also provide hand-outs at the counter for patients to take home and discuss healthy lifestyle habits for the new year. has a free tool kit for health care professionals, with dozens of handouts on topics such as building healthy eating routines, cutting down on sugar, and making healthy drink choices. These small but important lifestyle changes can positively affect the overall health of a patient.”

Food is Medicine: Good for Patients

The bottom line is that there is no single pathway to success for a food as medicine program. We’re all working together to identify the next steps and what a successful ecosystem looks like. As payors work through how to implement on their end and retailers adapt systems to fit, pharmacy will be here to support. In preventative and reactive care, payor-sponsored food as medicine is a step in the right direction. Together, pharmacy organizations, payors, and physicians can build a powerful program to shift the course of American healthcare and improve patient health. The future of pharmacy is clinical, from standard clinical services to point-of-care testing.  

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