SCARBOROUGH — A Scarborough cancer program was one of seven recipients of the 2019 ACCC Innovator Awards presented by the Association of Community Cancer Centers at the organizations 36th National Oncology Conference.

Honorees shared innovative strategies and lessons learned from their own experience to enable others to model and scale similar initiatives at the conference, which took place from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1 in Orlando, Florida.

New England Caner Specialists of Scarbrough was one of the award winners for its program that treats food insecurity along with its patients’ disease.

Food insecurity is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food, which may result in hunger, defined as an individual-level physiological condition.

While most people recognize that too many Americans suffer from hunger as a result of poverty, few would guess that Maine stands out as a particularly “food insecure” state. But the fact is that far more people in Maine experience food insecurity compared to residents of other states.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reported in 2018 that 11.8 percent of Americans are currently “food insecure,” that is, they are without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of food. In Maine, 14.4 percent of residents are food insecure, ranking the state ninth in the nation.

Like many Maine residents, Steven D’Amato, BSPharm, the executive director of New England Cancer Specialists (NECS), was surprised to learn about the prevalence of food insecurity in his state. D’Amato discovered the extent of the problem two years ago when he and a colleague attended a meeting for medical directors sponsored by Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. Listening to a presentation by Maine’s Good Shepard Food Bank, the largest food bank in the state, D’Amato was taken aback by what he heard. “The numbers wowed us,” he recalls. “We learned that food insecurity is an issue in both rural northern Maine and in southern Maine, where the most populated, affluent areas are located.”

Upon returning to NECS, D’Amato shared what he’d learned, and along with his colleagues began wondering how many of their own patients were experiencing food insecurity. New England Cancer Specialists serves patients at three locations. The only private medical oncology practice in Maine, it employs 200 staff, including 14 physicians and 14 advance practice providers.

D’Amato had noticed that when staff put food out for patients in treatment rooms, it quickly disappeared. To determine how big the problem was among its patients, the practice worked into its patient questionnaire three additional questions, the answers to which could indicate food insecurity.

“Now, if we identify patients as food insecure, we direct them to our pharmacy, where we keep emergency packs of nonperishable food,” says D’Amato. He explains that the packs are wrapped in plain brown paper so as not to attract attention. Once a patient’s immediate need is addressed, D’Amato says, staff members tell them where they can access resources for long-term assistance.

The practice has partnered with Maine’s Good Shepard Food Bank to keep its food program running for the past two years. Tracey F. Weisberg, M.D., who has been with NECS for nearly 30 years, has used the practice’s food insecurity program to research the relationship between food insecurity and medical outcomes. Her work has demonstrated a positive correlation between food assistance and the outcomes of patients treated at NECS.

“When we look at social determinants of health, we know these things have an effect on quality of life and patient outcomes,” says D’Amato. “Food insecurity is only one piece. Patients have multiple psychosocial needs that affect treatment.”

Now in its ninth year, the Innovator Awards recognize ACCC member programs for their ingenuity and pioneering achievements in oncology. Innovations advance the goals of improving access, quality, and value in cancer care delivery. Other award recipients include: Ascension SE Wisconsin Hospitals of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin; LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes at UT Health Austin/Dell Medical School of Austin, Texas; University of Colorado Cancer Center of Aurora, Colorado; University of North Carolina Hospital, Department of Pharmacy of Chapel Hill, North Carolina; WellSpan Cancer Centers of York, Pennsylvania; and Yuma Regional Medical Center Cancer Center of Yuma, Arizona.

The Association of Community Cancer Centers (ACCC) is the leading education and advocacy organization for the cancer care community. Founded in 1974, ACCC is a powerful network of 25,000 multidisciplinary practitioners from 2,100 hospitals and practices nationwide. As advances in cancer screening and diagnosis, treatment options, and care delivery models continue to evolve — so has ACCC — adapting its resources to meet the changing needs of the entire oncology care team.

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