In Response: Do Doctors Recommend Dietary Supplements?

November 11, 2011

For healthcare professionals, the road to wellness is paved in integrative health-including the use of dietary supplements.

One only needs to look at the proliferation and popularity of the Dr. Oz brand to understand that integrative medicine has moved into the mainstream. As a naturopathic doctor, I’ve long believed that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and my medical training stressed combining traditional medicine with what some call complementary and alternative medicine.

In my practice, my primary interventions were getting people to change their eating and lifestyle habits and their nutrient intakes in an effort to set them on the road to good health. There was considerable focus on dietary supplements and improving a patient’s overall health by helping fill nutrition gaps. I counseled the three pillars of health: healthy diet, dietary supplements, and regular exercise. Add in the proper amount of sleep, stress reducers like massage or meditation, and plenty of water, and you’ve got a synergistic approach that emphasizes wellness.

With two-thirds of American adults taking dietary supplements each year, including 72% of physicians, there’s no doubt that supplements are mainstream. It’s no longer just the naturopaths recommending that patients incorporate supplements into a smart nutrition program. In fact, the CRN Foundation’s Life…supplemented Healthcare Professionals (HCP) Impact Study (1) surveyed 10 populations of healthcare practitioners over three years and found, overwhelmingly, that the majority of these populations both personally take and professionally recommend dietary supplements.

According to the data, 80% of OB/GYNs, 75% of dermatologists, 73% of orthopedic specialists, and 71% of primary care physicians take supplements. Even among cardiologists, perhaps considered the most “hardcore” of traditionalists, 57% take supplements. The kinds of supplements they take are very similar to what’s most popular with consumers, (2) products like the multivitamin, letter vitamins, calcium, fish oil, and green tea.

The reasons physicians take supplements are in line with the reasons consumers take them. “Overall health and wellness” is the most common reason cited by 50% of OB/GYNs, 43% of orthopedic specialists, 42% of dermatologists, 40% of physicians, 37% of primary care physicians, and 32% of cardiologists.

Within the various physician populations that the HCP Impact Studies looked at, there was correlation between the physician’s particular specialty and the reasons he/she recommended supplements. For example, 75% of orthopedic specialists recommended supplements for bone health, while 81% of dermatologists recommended supplements for skin, hair, and nails. It was no surprise that the top three reasons why cardiologists recommend supplements were related to heart health.

FDA regulates the dietary supplement industry, but not the actual practice of medicine. Therefore, doctors are able to engage in more specific dialogue about supplements than what is allowed on a product label. Whereas a supplement company cannot legally recommend a supplement product to its consumers as a treatment option, doctors can incorporate dietary supplements into treatment plans. With that greater leeway comes an important responsibility for doctors to stay up to date on emerging science and the body of literature surrounding supplements.

The HCP Impact Studies found that some healthcare professionals would be more confident in talking with patients about dietary supplements if they had more training. For example, 79% of pharmacists agreed with that statement, as did 66% of nurse practitioners and 58% of PCPs. Interestingly, only 44% of cardiologists agreed-but these statistics again emphasize the important role of scientific research and ongoing education. By focusing on science-backed products, our mainstream popularity-with consumers and healthcare practitioners alike-can only continue to grow.  
 

References

1. Life…supplemented Healthcare Professionals Impact Study 2007, 2008, 2009, www.lifesupplemented.org
2. The 2010 CRN Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements