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Food Insecurity Screening in Two Settings

September 18, 2019

The American Academy of Pediatrics has called upon pediatricians to take an active role in screening for food insecurity in clinical settings and connecting families to food resources. Implementation of screening for food insecurity has accelerated rapidly over the past few years, but many questions remain, including where and how to screen, and what to do once a family screens positive. Jonathan KenKnight, MD, FAAP, and Gretchen Gretchen J. Cutler, PhD, MPH, share screening practices from two different settings.

In the clinic | Dr. Jonathan KenKnight

As pediatricians, we are all acutely aware of the stress and burden food insecurity places on our patients and families, and we need to be screening for problems.  Bright Futures recommends routine screening for food scarcity along with other socioeconomic factors at our well visits. The Minnesota Department of Health also added this to its Child and Teen Checkup requirements in 2017.

At Essentia Health, where I practice in Duluth, we have developed an automated screening questionnaire that is given to families prior to well visits. These are completed in privacy after the patient is roomed.  Depending on responses, these are flagged for follow- up with our community health worker, who then reaches out to families to assist in finding resources.

Fortunately in Duluth, we have several food banks locally and many organizations built to help families address this increasingly common problem. However, given that we take care of a large area ranging from Northeastern Minnesota, Northern Wisconsin, and the upper peninsula of Michigan, sometimes finding local resources is challenging. Fortunately, we have a social worker present in our office space. She is available to speak with families and connect them with resources in person during the visit and can follow up as needed to ensure our children and families have access to food and any other social needs – housing, safety, etc. We also have pamphlets present in our exam rooms with lists of local resources that are freely available to take.

Jonathan KenKnight, MD, FAAP, is a pediatrician with Essentia Health in Duluth, MN.

In the emergency department | Gretchen Cutler, PhD, MPH

I’ve had the unique opportunity to co-lead a research project with Caitlin Caspi, ScD, from the University of Minnesota Department of Family Medicine and Community Health that has tried to tackle questions regarding food insecurity screening with a research team including investigators from Children’s Minnesota (Anupam Kharbanda, MD, MSc), the University of Minnesota (Marissa Hendrickson, MD), and HCMC (Diana Cutts, MD). This study was supported by a research grant from the University of Minnesota’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, Child Health Collaborative Grant Program, a partnership between the University of Minnesota and Children’s Minnesota.

In February 2017, Children’s Minnesota started screening for food insecurity in our Minneapolis and St. Paul emergency departments (EDs) with the aim of examining a universal electronic medical record (EMR) based screening process along with a text message system for providing follow-up community food resource information.

The validated 2-item Hunger Vital Sign was embedded in the EMR along with other rooming assessment questions. After an 8-month period of verbal screening by nursing staff, only 4 percent of caregivers were screening positive, which was surprising as other studies have found food insecurity rates as high as 40 percent in urban pediatric EDs. Screening was also only being completed in a little over half of patient visits, and nursing staff was raising concerns about difficulties with asking questions directly as written and patient discomfort. We had chosen an EMR-based screening method in order to screen as many families as possible, but this method was not reaching all patients, and was not accurately identifying all families experiencing food insecurity. With a few months of study funding left, we decided to test whether the number of positive screens would go up if we switched to a private, electronic tablet-based method. Over a five-month period this new process resulted in a four-fold increase in the percentage of positive screens, increasing from 4 percent to 16 percent.

During the two-year study, we identified 2,272 families as food insecure and provided each with a food resource handout. A subset of 265 caregivers completed a more comprehensive screen, which showed that over half of these families were classified in the most severe category of food insecurity. These caregivers were also randomized to receive a food resource handout or a handout plus a series of text messages with community food resource information.

Food insecurity status was slightly improved in families at a three-month follow-up, but this did not differ by delivery method of food resource information.

The increase in screening for food insecurity in health care settings is a crucial step towards treating all factors that influence a child’s health, and our finding highlight the importance of choosing the correct screening method. Food insecurity is a stigmatizing condition, which can make verbal disclosure difficult, especially when children are present or in an ED setting when there is rarely an established relationship with a family. To accurately identify all families in need screening methods should be consistently monitored, adjusted when needed, and should incorporate feedback from impacted families.

Gretchen J. Cutler, PhD, MPH is a Scientific Investigator with the Children’s Minnesota Research Institute and an Affiliate Assistant Professor with the Division of Epidemiology, University of Minnesota.

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