Food is Medicine: developing a Medically-Tailored Meal (MTM) program to tackle heart disease in Australia
Eating an unhealthy diet is a leading risk factor for heart disease worldwide. Innovative new programs to improve the diet of millions of Australians at high risk of heart disease, such as those with high blood pressure and diabetes, have tremendous potential to save lives and reduce healthcare costs.
‘Food is medicine’ programs aim to integrate healthy food and nutrition provision into the health care system for the prevention, management, and treatment of disease, especially for food-insecure patients and other vulnerable groups. Medically-tailored meals (MTM) are one such approach, in which doctors ‘prescribe’ evidence-based pre-prepared healthy meals for patients. Patients with heart disease often experience side effects from their drug treatments and show a strong desire for non-medical treatments. Prescribing healthy meals offers patients a new way of accessing the foods they need. For many disadvantaged patients with heart disease this will also make healthy foods affordable. Given the high cost of many drug therapies it is likely to be commercially attractive to governments and private health care providers.
We will test whether medically-tailored-meals are an effective and cost-effective way of treating and preventing heart disease in the Australian setting. This will be an Australian-first study with the only other significant research in the field being done by colleagues in the United States.
We will initially conduct a pilot study of an MTM program in individuals at high risk of heart disease and who are food insecure. The pilot will evaluate patient uptake and acceptability of the medically-tailored meals, and inform the design of a subsequent clinical trial to determine the effect of MTM on key heart disease risks.
In this pilot study, 50 individuals will receive two medically-tailored meals per day, 5 days per week, for 12 weeks. Their dietary intake, body weight, blood pressure, and blood glucose level will be assessed pre- and post-intervention. A sub-sample of participants will be interviewed to understand how the program worked (or did not work) for them, and ways the program can be improved and scaled up.
We are currently engaging stakeholders and healthy meal providers in the development phase of the MTM program and pilot study.
The study is supported by seed funding from an NHMRC Program Grant and a generous philanthropic donation from the Estate of Faye Williams.