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Doctors not discussing potential dangers of supplements often enough

July 5, 2013

Dietary supplements are a popular way for the general population to get the nutrients they may not be consuming through food. But while many people make use of supplements, there are some that can pose health risks to seniors, including potentially harmful interactions with prescription drugs. Despite these dangers, a new study from the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that doctors may not be effectively warning their patients about the potential risks of taking supplements, according to findings published in journal Patient Education and Counseling.

The researchers relied on an analysis of transcripts from office visits of more than 1,400 patients. Scientists were particularly interested in seeing whether doctors discussed issues including the reason for taking the supplements, how to take them, what their potential risks are, their cost and their effectiveness. The team found that less than 25 percent of the five major topics were discussed on an average visit. In fact, all five topics were touched on in only six of the 738 visits where the topic of supplements was raised.

"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," said Dr. Derjung Tarn, the study's primary investigator. 

Experts believe the results may be particularly troubling given the number of people who take supplements. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of the U.S. takes at least one dietary supplement. In the early 1990s, the figure stood at about 40 percent. Doctors also warn that supplements should only be used when there is a considerable deficiency and not as a substitute for following a healthy lifestyle for seniors