Low-wage healthcare workers in residential care facilities, including assisted living communities, were five times more likely to experience food insecurity compared with other healthcare workers, according to the results of a new study.
The research of food insecurity among U.S. healthcare workers, published in Health Affairs, found that 6.6% of all healthcare workers experienced food insecurity in the past month, with healthcare support workers reporting the highest rate (19.7%) compared with practitioners (1.3%) and health technologists and technicians (7.3%).
Researchers reported that food insecurity rates were the highest in residential care facilities and nursing facilities for all occupational categories. Compared with healthcare practitioners, the odds of being food insecure were 5.1 times higher for healthcare support workers and 2.5 times higher for health technologists and technicians.
“Nearly 16% of all healthcare workers in this setting experienced food insecurity, and a staggering 22.7% of healthcare support workers in this setting reported being food insecure,” the study said of residential care and nursing facilities.
Researchers attributed the high rates of food insecurity in residential care and nursing facility workers to low wages typically earned by shift and contract workers, organizational scheduling practices and personal circumstances — including unreliable transportation or child care — that create irregular earnings.
“The high prevalence of food insecurity among healthcare support workers — an essential workforce amid an aging U.S. population — is of concern,” the researchers wrote. “The healthcare industry and policymakers can draw on these findings to identify solutions to addressing food insecurity among their own employees who are also members of the communities they serve.”
Addressing food insecurity among healthcare workers, they added, also may improve resident and patient health by improving quality of care.
“Insofar as healthcare support jobs tend to be both physically demanding and psychologically strenuous — and there is evidence that links food insecurity with both physical and mental health — I think it’s plausible to think that being hungry is going to constrain the ability of a healthcare support worker to provide quality care to their patient,” said Mithuna Srinivasan, Ph.D., principal research scientist at NORC at the University of Chicago.
Solutions, she said, tend to be short-lived or limited in scope. To truly uncover what is needed to sustain effects, it is important to go to the source and ask the workers themselves what might work, Srinivasan said. Those discussions, the authors said, could also shed light on healthcare workers’ perceptions of whether employers are aware of the hardships they face.
“Some structural solutions that employers and policymakers could consider would include wage increases; at a policy level, minimum wage increases; and more equitable human resources policies, like benefit packages that maximize take-home pay and provide other types of non-traditional benefits, like referrals to community resources, child care, cafeteria meals and employee housing programs,” Srinivasan said.
Future research, the researchers said, should explore the prevalence of food insecurity across healthcare occupational categories, including interviews or focus groups with workers to identify potential solutions, and how/whether the pandemic has exacerbated the situation among healthcare workers.
“As the U.S. population ages, health systems and policy makers must ensure that healthcare workers’ compensation and benefits are adequate to maintain a robust and healthy workforce,” the authors concluded.
Of the 5,516 U.S. healthcare workers included in the study, 57.4% were diagnosing and treating practitioners, 22.1% were health technologists and technicians and 20.5% were healthcare support workers — 13.3% reported being employed in nursing facilities and residential care communities.
Researchers used data from the 2013-18 National Health Interview Survey.