Food Insecurity Tied to Higher Healthcare Utilization, Costs

People who experience food insecurity not only use healthcare more, but they account for higher healthcare costs compared with people with the same income who are food secure.

People who struggle to put food on the table, called food insecurity, not only use healthcare more, but they account for higher healthcare costs compared with people with the same income who don’t experience food insecurity, according to a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Researchers from University of Toronto, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES), and the University of Illinois examined patient data for 67,033 adults in Ontario, Canada, between the ages of 18 and 64 years. They obtained the data through the Canadian Community Health Survey and used it to assess the individuals’ household food insecurity status and then linked the data with administrative healthcare data.

“Food insecurity — independent of income and education – appears to lead directly to health consequences like increased emergency room use,” Valerie Tarasuk, PhD, lead author and professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, said in a statement. “It would be much cheaper for taxpayers and more humane if we addressed hunger on the front end rather than treating the health problems that result.”

In 2012, 12.6% of Canadian households experience inadequate access to food, which can be influenced by factors such as low income and affordability of housing. According to Dr Tarasuk, people who struggle to afford the food they need have poorer health in general and more chronic disease.

The researchers discovered that as levels of food insecurity increased, so did total healthcare costs and mean costs for inpatient hospital care, emergency department visits, physician services, same-day surgeries, home care services, and prescription drugs covered by the Ontario Drug Benefit Program. The group of people with the most severe food insecurity accounted for more than 2 times the health costs of people who were food secure.

Households with marginal food insecurity had annual costs that were 16% higher than food secure households, while households with moderate food insecurity had costs that were 32% higher, and household with severe food insecurity had costs that were 76% higher.

“Our ability to link food insecurity data with health care expenditures provides a unique window into the burden of this pervasive social problem on our health care system, and is what sets this research apart from other studies on health and food insecurity” said Paul Kurdyak, MD, PhD, study co-author, director of Health Systems Research at CAMH, lead of the Mental Health and Addictions Research Program at ICES, and an associate professor of psychiatry at University of Toronto.