Q&A: Elevance food as medicine director on nutrition’s role in health

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Elevance Health has hired its first food as medicine director to advance its goal of addressing chronic conditions among 47 million members while reducing costs.

Pediatrician Dr. Kofi Essel, who assumed the role in June, spoke with Modern Healthcare about his plans to reach individuals across all markets through various nutrition programs and his aims for the position. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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What does your role as food as medicine director at Elevance entail?

I’ll be designing an enterprise-wide strategy to use food solutions to address a variety of diet-related conditions. Research shows poor nutrition is one of the leading risk factors for increased mortality and morbidity, and decreased quality of life. One in ten adults has diabetes, one in three adults has prediabetes, 60% of adults have at least one chronic condition and nearly half of adults have hypertension.

Nutrition and food interventions should be part and parcel of quality interventions in addressing diet-related chronic diseases. When you look at addressing these conditions, a core component is centralizing food, nutrition and lifestyle. Unfortunately, as healthcare providers, we’re not always trained in that space.

Why is it important for a health insurance company to invest in a role like this?

A lot of what we do is heavily targeted toward our members to make sure they can achieve whole health. We think about the variety of factors that influence our members’ mental health, behavioral health and physical health.

This role brings food and nutrition to the forefront. There are people in the industry doing work related to medically tailored meals and produce prescription programs. But how do we do it effectively? Bringing subject matter expertise into this role allows for that opportunity.

How will you be engaging with communities?

There’s an opportunity for me to work directly with our different markets around the country. I’ve already started having those conversations and helping health plans optimize patient health.

My background is as a community pediatrician who has both seen patients and done grassroots food-as-medicine work, like creating produce prescription programs, working with local farmers and delivering produce to families’ homes. I plan on continuing to do work like that.

Is there a specific idea or project that you have in mind that you’re particularly excited about?

I can’t get into detail, but I will say this. Diabetes is one of the most expensive conditions in our healthcare system, costing more than $300 billion a year. We want to make sure that we are giving food and nutrition the chance it deserves in diabetes interventions.

How will you ensure Elevance’s efforts have a positive impact?

We are all about the data. We have a number of different initiatives that we are rolling out to measure how effective these programs are for our members. Although food as medicine isn’t a new intervention, a lot of questions remain about the ideal frequency of programs, amount of food and different elements like that, so we’re all learning together. We want to be thought leaders in that space and add to the collection of knowledge.

Is there talk of expanding Elevance’s interest in promoting food as medicine?

That’s why I’m here. We want to make sure the work we’re doing expands throughout every line of business and every single market we’re in. We’re creating programs and strategies now that could be rolled out for all our members, so they can benefit in whichever way that’s needed for them.

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