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Program takes aim a malnutrition among former students

April 6, 2019

If you don’t eat properly, you won’t heal so well.

That simple fact inspired New Hanover Regional Medical Center to launch a new program to help patients with their diets after they leave the hospital.

“We noticed a gap in our patient care,” said Angela Lago, NHRMC’s manager of clinical nutrition.

The hospital estimates that as many as 20 percent of its patients are malnourished -- either not getting enough to eat or not eating enough of the right kinds of foods. Many live in “food deserts,” areas without regular access to full-service groceries or farmers’ markets. In such areas, fresh fruits vegetables and other healthy whole foods may be hard to find.

NHRMC feeds patients balanced meals while they were in the hospital, but it was unclear if they stuck with their nutrition care plans after they were discharged, Lago said. Some did not have family to help them with meals.

So, the hospital developed a two-pronged malnutrition initiative.

With a grant from the Duke Endowment, NHRMC hired its first clinical outreach dietician, Skip Allen. With referrals from other staff dieticians, Allen visits malnourished patients in their homes and follows up with them about their hospital-recommended nutrition plans.

“We encourage them to follow the plans,” Allen said, “and if they have problems, we direct them to resources that can help them get the food they need.” These can include local food pantries, local senior centers, signing patients up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and putting them in touch with social service agencies or other hospital partners in the community.

At the same time, the NHRMC Nutrition Services team has started providing patients identified as “food insecure” with nutrition food boxes upon their discharge. These boxes contain enough food to provide 2,000 calories per day for up to two weeks.

With items such as peanut butter, lean meats, granola bars, fruit juices and other staples, the boxes provide the recommended daily amounts of calcium, protein and other essential nutrients, said Wayne Strauss, NHRMC’s director of food and nutrition services. “Patients will receive important nutrients to help them gain strength and muscle mass,” Strauss said.

Some 15 boxes have been distributed so far in the month and a half the program has been in operation, Lago said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines “food insecurity” as lack of consistent access to enough food to live an active, healthy life.

NHRMC’s malnutrition initiative is separate from the Food Farmacy launched by Nojurish N.C. and Nunnelee Pediatric Specialty Clinics. also Lago said the two are parallel. The Food Farmacy provides 25-pound boxes of nutritious food to hungry children on a doctor’s orders, often without copay. NHRMC’s plan serves a more general population, Lago said.