Legal Articles

August 9, 2013

Doctor discussions of dietary supplements currently insufficient

When people visit their doctors, they usually do so to discuss specific ailments or to complete wellness checkups. However, these visits should also serve as opportunities for patients to discuss with their doctors their health practices, and specifically what types of dietary supplements the patients are taking. A study of almost 1,500 transcriptions of patient visits to doctors between 1998 and 2010 found that this subject is being woefully neglected, especially by the doctors themselves. 

Dietary supplements carry inherent risks

The study found at its conclusion that “doctors do a poor job of providing patients with information about vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other dietary supplements.” This is a troubling prospect because of the risks associated with these supplements—such as unforeseen side effects or harmful prescription drug interactions. Another problem is when patients self-diagnose and take the supplements instead of conventional medications. 

Doctors neglect certain topics

During the 1,500 recorded visits, 350 patients discussed with their doctors more than 700 different dietary supplements. The study author, Dr. Derjung Tarn, who is also an assistant professor of family medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, said, “This is the first study to look at the actual content of conversations about dietary supplements in a primary-care  setting.” He continued, “The bottom line was that discussions about meaningful topics such as risks, effectiveness, and costs that might inform patient decisions about taking dietary supplements were sparse.” 

5 topics identified as crucial conversations

To determine the quality of conversations about supplements, researchers focused on five main areas: the reason patients had for taking them, how to take them, potential risks, effectiveness, and cost. In the conversations being assessed, on average just two of those topics were discussed. Only six of the discussions covered all five topics, and 300 of the supplements discussed during doctor patient conversations were not covered under those five topics at all.

Always discuss supplement with your doctor

On the upside, discussions about herbal supplements were more thorough, which is good because “herbal and related supplements are more likely to have potentially harmful interactions with conventional medicines.” In any case, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. National Institutes of Health say that no matter what supplements you are considering taking, you should always discuss them with your doctor first.


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