Supplements, Part 1: Asking Patients About Their Supplements


Article Categories: Patient Care & Pharmacology

“Is your medication list up to date? Have you added any supplements?” These two questions are among the most important that you can ask every patient, every time.



Many patients have been taking dietary supplements, such as multivitamins or calcium, for years. As people become more knowledgeable about nutrition and how it can impact health, they often add supplements to prevent deficiencies and boost performance. Because they may view supplements as “natural”, they may not report them during office visits, unless specifically asked.

Who is more likely to be a supplement user? Look for patients who are:

• Active. About 60% of people who exercise take at least one supplement.

• Educated. Patients who have more schooling tend to be open-minded about trying new things, as well as researching them.

• Properly nourished. People with healthy eating habits will still want to know they are taking care of their bodies in the best possible way.

• Non-smokers. When patients avoid harmful lifestyle choices, they seek ways to support their own wellness.

• Women. Over 70% of people over age 50 take supplements; 75% of those numbers are females. They can also influence the males in their life regarding supplements.

Dietary supplements are big business. In 2015, Americans will spend $21 BILLION on supplements, with their own out-of-pocket money. That’s more than the sale of all organic foods combined! Supplements in all forms (capsules, pills, powders, or liquids) make up 5% of all grocery sales.

There is no doubt that some supplements are beneficial. Women of childbearing age should take folic acid to prevent neural tube birth defects. Vegans and people over age 50 should take vitamin B12, which is found in animal foods and can be difficult for older people to digest. Vitamin D is important for nearly everyone who can’t be outside. As for other supplements, each person must determine what might be beneficial. It’s best to make the decision with the help of an appropriate healthcare provider.

Roberta Anding, MS, RD/LD, CDE, CSSD is the Director of Sports Nutrition at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, Texas. She provides of list of factors for patients and providers to consider:

1. Is the supplement choice backed by science or is it the latest marketing fad?

2. Age of the patient.

3. Gender. Women and men each have specific requirements.

4. Overall nutritional status.

5. Current medications. Some medications have contraindications for supplements.

6. Chronic illnesses or impending surgery can affect supplement choices or intake.

7. Country of origin for each supplement, which can affect safety and purity.

Medical Assistants can be the first-line professional to ask the patient about current supplement use. Every single visit can be an opportunity to update the patient’s record. Encourage patients who take supplements to keep a list, along with prescribed medications, in their wallets. This information can be critical in the event of an emergency.

Next in Supplements: Part 2, we’ll talk about the current popular supplements and why people are taking them.

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