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Massachusetts Medical and Dental Schools Respond to Food Access Issues

Leaders in Massachusetts health, dental, and nutrition-related care join forces to expand nutrition education curricula for health care professionals.

Last week, medical and dental schools from across Massachusetts met for a nutrition education event focused on the important role that health care professionals play in identifying and responding to nutrition and food access issues among their patients. This convening was co-hosted by Food is Medicine Massachusetts (FIMMA), Massachusetts Medical Society, Massachusetts Dental Society, and Massachusetts Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Poor diet quality is the leading risk factor for disability and premature death in the US, and it is a major health equity issue. Challenges associated with poor diet, including food insecurity and chronic illness, disproportionately burden Black, Indigenous, and People of Color that face systemic barriers to both health care and food access. Nutrition and food insecurity is also an expensive problem. Each year, Massachusetts food insecurity leads to a staggering $1.9 billion in avoidable health care costs, and nutrition-related diseases contribute to more than half of all health care expenditures in the Commonwealth.

In last week’s meeting, the Commonwealth’s medical and dental schools highlighted opportunities to fight these devastating trends by working to expand curriculum content on nutrition. As a next step, each school that participated in the meeting will designate a representative to continue engaging in future conversations and efforts for action. For example, these representatives will provide feedback on a draft set of nutrition core competencies developed by a FIMMA task force focused on provider nutrition education and referrals. The goal of co-hosts and participants is to ensure that the next generation of physicians and dentists are better-equipped to respond to patients’ food-related needs.

“Patients facing nutrition or food insecurity have options. There are effective food access and Food is Medicine services across Massachusetts to provide individuals with the food they need to thrive,” said Katie Garfield, director of whole person care at the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation of Harvard Law School, a co-leader of FIMMA. “ Physicians, dentists, and other health care professionals have tremendous potential to help identify patients’ food-related needs and connect them with the appropriate services. We are grateful to the Massachusetts medical and dental schools who are committing to training their students on these critical issues.”

“Proper nourishment is crucial for preventing disease, maintaining health and improving outcomes in those who are ill. Connecting patients with food resources is an important component of their overall care,” said Frances Parpos, RD, LDN, CDCES, President-Elect, Massachusetts Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (MAND). “MAND is thrilled to support this important initiative with these highly esteemed institutions.”

The Massachusetts Dental Society believes it is important for dental professionals to understand the significant role nutrition plays in overall health,” said Dr. Meredith Bailey, President of the Massachusetts Dental Society. “Poor diet quality is the leading risk factor for disability and premature death in the United States, driving both oral health outcomes and related chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes.  Historically, most dentists have received little formal nutrition education. Incorporating nutrition into the existing core competencies of the dental school curriculum will impress upon the next generation of dental professionals the importance of diet and nutrition in their patient’s health”

“As a pediatrician I’ve long recognized of the importance of healthy and adequate food for optimal child development. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated food insecurity for many individuals and families, particularly those with chronic medical conditions and those who are underserved,” Massachusetts Medical Society president Dr. Carole Allen said.  “To paraphrase civil rights and public health leader Dr. H. Jack Geiger, the specific therapy for malnutrition is food; it is crucial for patient health that we train members of the health care team to screen for food insecurity and commence appropriate interventions.”

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