Tavinder Phull, MPH, MBA, Vice President of Community Health and Health Equity, Office of the Chief Medical Officer works closely with community health leaders across Mass General Brigham to develop a highly effective strategy aimed at reducing health inequities in the communities we serve and demonstrating measurable improvement in community health outcomes.
In this Q&A, Phull offers insight into the importance of food security and the work Mass General Brigham has done to address disparities in vulnerable communities.
Phull: Health-related social risk factors such as lack of access to nutritious food, affordable housing, transportation, and a family-sustaining job play a large role in shaping an individual’s health. There is research that shows social factors play a potentially larger role in people’s health than healthcare itself.
Even with the considerable mortality rate from COVID-19, heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States. What’s troubling is that we see significant racial and ethnic inequities in heart disease outcomes. Underlying these inequities are social and economic disadvantages, variation in access to quality healthcare, and structural racism experienced by communities of color.
At the individual level, a person with uncontrolled hypertension needs access to healthy, affordable food as well as safe spaces for physical activity in order to improve their blood pressure level.
The recognition that what is happening outside of the walls of our hospitals has a significant impact on health is essential to improving health outcomes and addressing health inequities.
Phull: One of our more impactful tools is our Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA). During this assessment process, Mass General Brigham and our hospitals identify the primary health-related needs in the communities we serve. This process includes a review of secondary data as well as engagement with the community to gather input. The process is governed by a Community Advisory Board that includes individuals from the communities served by our hospitals.
From these assessments, we develop strategies in partnership with community-based organizations, local leaders, and other key stakeholders to support essential community health programming.
We also maintain close relationships with these same key stakeholders to understand emerging needs in our communities. This has been especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Phull: According to the USDA, food insecurity is the lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life. Food insecurity often results in people turning to cheap foods with poor nutritional value that are linked to chronic illnesses like diabetes and obesity.
Food insecurity at the community level negatively impacts young people’s academic ability, depresses economic productivity for that community, and eventually leads to reduced life expectancy.
Phull: Mass General Brigham is making a significant commitment to improve nutrition security and equity in vulnerable communities. This commitment includes $8.5M supporting “Food as Medicine” programs to tackle diet-related diseases and fund food-related programming at local community-based organizations.
By substantially increasing our food security efforts we can continue to help address the challenges and barriers that many people in the communities we serve are facing.
Phull: Patients can easily access Mass General Brigham community resources by talking to their doctor. Referrals to community-based supports can be made by providers and other practice support staff like community health workers. And some programs, like our Community Care Vans, can be accessed without making an appointment or prior registration as a patient. We’re trying to make it easier for community members to get the help they need.