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Doctor-Patient Communication about Dietary Supplements Could Use a Vitamin Boost

Nearly half of all Americans take dietary supplements, but they can carry risk, including potentially adverse interactions with prescription drugs. However, a UCLA study has found that when it comes to communicating with patients about supplements, most doctors are deficient.

“This study is the first to look at the actual content of conversations about dietary supplements in a primary-care setting,” says Derjung Tarn, MD (FEL ’05, ’06), PhD, assistant professor of family medicine. “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.”

The researchers analyzed transcripts of audio recordings from office visits by 1,477 patients to 102 primary-care providers between 1998 and 2010. Of those visits, 357 included patient-physician discussions of 738 dietary supplements. The team found that five major topics generally were discussed with regard to supplements: the reason for taking the supplements, how to take them, potential risks, effectiveness, and cost or affordability. Among the findings:

  • Less than 25 percent of the five major topics — fewer than two on average — were discussed during the office visits.
  • All five topics were covered during discussions of only six of the 738 supplements.
  • None of the five major topics were discussed for 281 of the supplements patients told their physicians they were taking.

Given the popularity, availability and potential risks of the supplements discussed, more should be done to improve physician communication about them, the researchers said. “Future studies should examine the relationship between physician-patient discussions on patient decision-making about dietary supplements and investigate whether or not discussions are effective for preventing adverse events and supplement-drug interactions,” the researchers write. “A better understanding about these relationships could inform future interventions to enhance physician-patient communication about dietary supplements.”



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