Every 5 years the National Institute of Health releases a study on Comparative Alternative Medicine (CAM) that details nationwide trends in health supplement use.
We’re due for another one in 2012, but I thought it’d be interesting to take a close look at the results from 2007.
In some circles supplement use is casted in a shadowy light, either because it’s “new age” quackery, and in some cases it doesn’t represent “real” nutrition. Janet Helm has this view.
However, the evidence suggests something more mundane and beneficial. The majority of supplement users are well educated, upper middle class people who are health conscious. They take supplements to fill in gaps in their diet, or provide a natural, less invasive remedy for conditions they have.
Let’s examine, shall we?
The Demographics of Health Supplement Users
The last Complimentary and Alternative Medicine survey conducted in 2007 found that about 38% of adults and 12% of children used some sort of supplement or engaged in alternative medicine:
And they also tend to be middle-aged, with the largest portion of supplement users falling between the ages of 45 and 64:
Another paper that parsed data from the same study found that supplement users are two and a half times more likely to be college educated, and 55% of them are female.
Doctors Use Supplements More Than The Population At Large
What’s curious is that only a small portion of supplement users report using them to their doctors. My first instinct leads me to believe people might be afraid of scorn from licensed professionals for not following the traditional path. However, according to this survey, supplement usage is much higher in the medical community than the population at large, and they regularly recommend them to their patients!
The “Life…supplemented” Healthcare Professionals Impact Study (HCP Impact Study) found that 72% of physicians and 89% of nurses in this sample used dietary supplements regularly, occasionally, or seasonally. Regular use of dietary supplements was reported by 51% of physicians and 59% of nurses. The most common reason given for using dietary supplements was for overall health and wellness (40% of physicians and 48% of nurses), but more than two-thirds cited more than one reason for using the products. When asked whether they “ever recommend dietary supplements” to their patients, 79% of physicians and 82% of nurses said they did.
What’s even more curious is that doctors readily subscribe supplements to their patients, but only with supplements that they are very familiar with.
Perhaps doctors, like everyone else, just tend to distrust the unfamiliar. Maybe their medical training makes the issue worse, since they’d have a harder time conceiving the health benefits of something that wasn’t introduced to them in their training. Or it could be entirely practical. The litigious risks of recommending a supplement that they aren’t familiar with provides a lot of risk exposure to a potential malpractice lawsuit.