For many Americans, it’s hard to put food on the table. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 44.2 million people had difficulty feeding their families, up from 33.8 million people last year. Sadly, food insecurity isn’t anything new and this problem is something Deepak Palakshappa, MD, MSHP, associate professor of general internal medicine, has researched for more than 10 years.

Deepak Palakshappa leaning on railing.

Palakshappa’s research focuses on improving the health outcomes of populations that have been socially and economically disadvantaged, specifically by addressing food insecurity and other social determinants of health. Treating patients of all ages has given Palakshappa a unique perspective on improving the health of low-income families through innovative tools and population-based approaches to achieve health equity.

Through Palakshappa’s research and patient discourse, he has concentrated on pioneering team-based care models using mobile technology, in-person navigation with community health workers and patient navigators, partnerships with community-based organizations and policy changes to work toward combating and alleviating food insecurity. He credits his direct patient care with inspiring much of his research and his hope is that his findings will directly improve patient care. Get to know him in his own words.

What made you want to get into research?

I became interested in research because of my patients. One patient I cared for as a second-year resident shaped my career and research focus. She had diabetes and had been to the emergency department and urgent care clinics numerous time for low blood sugars. After about a year of taking care of her, she finally told me that she had been struggling to pay for food and her medications. Because of the cost of her medications, she was often skipping meals so that her grandkids could have enough to eat.

This was the reason her blood sugars were dropping and throughout this time it had never occurred to me, or any other clinician that was taking of her, to ask if she had food at home. This experience led me to think more about how we need to change our health care models to better understand the broader social issues that impact our patients and how research could be used as a tool to improve the care and health of patients.

What makes opportunities at Wake Forest University School of Medicine unique?

I think the best and most unique aspect of Wake Forest University School of Medicine is how collaborative everyone is. I have had the pleasure to work with and learn from mentors and colleagues across multiple different departments as well as community partners throughout Winston-Salem. Having the opportunity to work with people from different backgrounds and with different interests makes the work more impactful and enjoyable.

What’s the most exciting research you’ve worked on?

A key aspect of my research is to understand how to screen and address food insecurity and other social needs in clinical care settings. Recently, many national healthcare organizations, such as the National Academy of Medicine and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, have now started to recommend that health systems and clinicians address patient’s unmet social needs as a routine part of clinical care. With the support of my mentors, colleagues, and staff, many of our studies have contributed to understanding how health systems can implement social care into the delivery of healthcare, which has been really exciting to see.

What advice would you give someone who is just starting their research or medical career?

Pursue what you are passionate about. Both patient care and research can be challenging. Patient care is incredibly rewarding as patients come to you at their most vulnerable points and you have an opportunity to influence a person’s life, but the day-to-day can be very demanding on your time and energy.

Research is an opportunity to be creative and really change population health, but it can be filled with failures and rejections. If you are passionate about what you are doing though, then you are able to enjoy the process rather than just the ‘big wins’. Also, what is nice in both research and medicine is that you can shift your focus as your passions shift.

What are some of your hobbies or interests outside of work?

I love spending time with my kids and family. We really enjoy traveling to new places together, but also just going to the grocery store with my two daughters can be a blast. Outside of spending time with them, I also really enjoy playing golf and tennis when I can.