Supplements and My Physician

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More and more consumers are turning to supplements for health related concerns. It’s understandable when we see medication commercials with laundry lists of side effects and law firm advertisements on television every evening. It’s interesting to see that more physicians and healthcare providers are also choosing supplements for health related concerns.

The Healthcare Professionals 2008 Impact Study (HCP Impact Study) collected data from physicians regarding both personal use and recommendation of supplements to patients. The HCP Impact Study was commissioned by the Council of Responsible Nutrition (CRN) and the study was published in Nutrition Journal which is peer-reviewed. A great article entitled: “Physician supplement use matches general population levels: Survey” was recently published online. See the reference link below. The actual report as published in Nutrition Journal is also available below.

A reading of the article discusses the lack of formal training or continuing education on dietary supplements available to physicians. You should always inform your health care provider or physician when you initiate or take any dietary supplement. It is important for him to know the ingredients of the supplement and the amount of those ingredients. If you know of clinical documentation, studies, or journal articles it might be wise to provide these to your physician. Do not assume that he is familiar or knows about the particular supplement that you are taking. By providing these references your physician may be encouraged to review the literature and discern whether or not the documentation is relevant. Physicians are trained to understand and review the clinical significance of a clinical study. Providing this information will allow him to respond from an educated perspective.

I have spent thirty years in the pharmaceutical industry and like your physician had limited education on dietary supplements and as a result never had a lot of faith in dietary supplements. The major reason was that I did not believe that clinical data existed to substantiate the efficacy of these products. When you work for these multinational corporations you notice something strange in that generally the bulk of their revenue is generated here on the North American continent. Then you ask yourself, well what are physicians recommending and consumers using outside of North America? Low and behold often its dietary supplements. So naturally I was curious and wanted to know where the efficacy of these dietary supplements was both established and documented. I was truly surprised that some dietary supplement ingredients do in fact have substantial clinical data and documentation of efficacy and safety. The data was and is even published in substantial medical journals that are respected throughout the medical community here in North America.

Then why is it that my physician(s) did not know about these studies and the associated ingredients? The reason is simple. These physicians typically subscribe or receive 8 to 10 medical journals per month. Rarely if ever are they able to read them cover to cover. Then what are they reading I’ll tell you. Pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars annually promoting the latest, patented, and expensive medication. They send representatives into physician offices monthly sometimes bi-monthly to point out and reference the studies in these journals about the product they are promoting. This in turn encourages the physician to read that particular study when and if they have time. Billions and billions of dollars are collectively spent each year to ensure that physician attention is fine tuned to what the pharmaceutical companies want the physician to know. If it didn’t work, these companies would not continue to spend millions of dollars to promote their product or products.

Another problem is the volume of supplement ingredients that truly have not been sufficiently documented in substantial clinical studies or published in respected medical journals. Just because it is published does not mean that it is the gospel. A review of supplement offerings on the internet clearly shows that some companies make treatment claims. They actually use the word “treatment” on their respective website. Very few of these companies have been through a “truth in advertising” challenge from the Council of Responsible Nutrition. Generally this is a six to nine month process administered by the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau. Why? Here we go again – money. When a challenge is initiated it typically requires the challenger to pay upwards of $3000.00 or more. After participating in a challenge regarding one of my own products I will say that this process and the end result offer the greatest protection for the consumer. If all companies went through this process the supplement market would definitely be a better place for all consumers. In the age of information (internet) this is the only true protection for the consumer and or physician wanting to educate themselves about these products or ingredients. The other way consumers are protected is when voluminous complaints are received about a company’s misleading advertising practices by the Federal Trade Commission via their complaint submission process on the internet. This is evidenced by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) taking action against supplement manufacturers that made false claims regarding a certain product or supplement use that claimed protection against swine flu. What manufacturer would do this? A simple way to find out is type the name of the company and the letters FDA into the search engine search window. You will be surprised that this information will generally bring up warning letters sent to the respective company via the fda.gov website.

The alternative is to look for product sites that provide actual references to the clinical data published in the medical literature. Or contact the respective company and make an inquiry into the clinical data regarding the respective ingredients. Obviously an intelligent answer should be made available.

When it comes to dietary supplements you may be the best source of education when it comes to dietary supplement efficacy and safety. Many consumers spend hours researching and ascertaining the benefits of the product that they are purchasing. The references you provide will encourage your physician to review the clinical literature when it is made readily available. Do not assume that your physician has received formal training or education on dietary supplement ingredients. If your physician is not familiar with the clinical references then the merit of any critical assessment should be considered.