Dietary supplements have come under fire from state agencies, raising questions about what role they play in healthcare. PR pros now have a duty to participate in this conversation, to alleviate any potential confusion and help health-conscious consumers make informed decisions.

With patients and consumers increasingly empowered and engaged in their own healthcare, dietary supplements have gained in popularity and importance. Easy-to-access capsules and tablets help consumers ensure they’re getting the vitamins, minerals and fatty acids that may be missing from their diets.

Yet recently, dietary supplements have come under scrutiny from multiple sources. As it turns out, confusion is common among consumers, as well as the healthcare professionals charged with guiding their wellbeing.

As PR professionals seeking to guard client reputation and improve public health, it’s critical for us to understand the facts about dietary supplements, their intended use, and their potential safety concerns.

Confusion is practically a given in this category. In fact, a few years ago, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Beneficiaries Services almost nixed reimbursement coverage for seniors needing a prescription heart medication because it contained a vitamin. After months of discussion, the drug was included for patients in need — but the risk of exclusion was very real.

What’s in a name?

Dietary supplements are intended to do just what their name suggests -- supplement diet. In fact, under United States law known as the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, these products are regulated as foods, not drugs (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is clear that dietary supplements should not be used to treat diagnosed disease.).

While this seems straightforward, their location in the drugstore may be contributing to confusion about their nature and appropriate use. Both healthcare professionals and patients may be mistakenly calling dietary supplements “over the counter” products — an entirely different FDA-supervised regulatory category.

Unlike dietary supplements, OTCs are tightly regulated by FDA as drugs; tested for safety, efficacy and good manufacturing processes. Calling a dietary supplement an “OTC” product is misleading to consumers.

Yet healthcare professionals tend to use the two terms interchangeably, adding to the confusion. Data released from a survey of 150 pharmacists and 200 physicians, conducted by Farleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind, showed that fewer than half (41%) of the professionals surveyed correctly stated that FDA regulates and approves OTC products, but not dietary supplement products.

This is more than just an issue of semantics — confusion around terminology may add to consumer misunderstanding about how to use dietary supplements appropriately. Creating clarity is especially important in light of recent safety concerns.

Supplement scrutiny creates confusion

During recent weeks, dietary supplements have come under scrutiny — perhaps most notably and publicly, from the New York Attorney General, whose office announced a lawsuit against four major national drug store chains for selling dietary supplements that are mislabeled and contain undisclosed fillers and allergens.

For PR firms in this category, helping dietary supplement clients and pharmacy chains requires knowledge and asking the right questions. In light of the NYAG announcement, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reissued its 2010 report on herbal dietary supplements, revealing that 37 of 40 supplements tested contained a hazardous contaminant.

The supplements evaluated and listed in the NYAG lawsuit were popular herbal supplements, such as St. John’s Wort and gingko biloba. But questions of safety and labeling extend to other popular dietary supplements like fish oil capsules. Fish oil, or omega-3 fatty acids, is among the most popular dietary supplements in the world. People spend around $3.1 billion annually on omega-3 supplements, and market research indicates that retail sales of omega-3s will increase 37% by 2016.

Clinical research links omega-3 to potential heart health benefits, among other things, but the clinical studies involved prescription products, not dietary supplements. And while they may share an active ingredient, dietary supplement fish oil is not monitored in the same way as prescriptions — and new evidence reveals potential health risks.

A study on fish oil supplements published in Nature journal in January, found that 69% of the fish oil supplements studied contained less than two-thirds of the active ingredients listed on their label. More concerning, the study team found high levels of oxidation — essentially, the breakdown of the active oils, which degenerate and may have health implications. From a quality perspective, only 8% of tested samples met international standards.

Even if consumers find a fish oil supplement that is labeled accurately, the fact remains that dietary supplements are not intended to treat serious medical conditions. Often, dietary supplements do not contain therapeutic doses equal to prescription products.

Unfortunately, confusion plays a role in impeding patient care here, too: the PublicMind survey also found that 30% of pharmacists and 22% of physicians stated, incorrectly, that prescription and dietary supplement omega-3 products are similar in strength and content.

For patients seeking therapeutic doses of omega-3 fatty acids to treat a disease, being directed to a dietary supplement instead of a prescription can actually cause more harm than good. Without clear information for both patients and professionals, consumers may be using products that are not only less than prescription strength, but may contain unlisted ingredients.

Healthcare PR carries a special responsibility and privilege: our work on behalf of innovators, marketers, patient advocates, professionals and health systems as a whole is linked directly to patient outcomes. Seeking to understand the detail behind patient behaviors and the context around health risks is what drives us, and what enables us to develop thoughtful messaging and outreach strategies. In the case of dietary supplements, confusion and inconsistent use of terminology is obstructing care; as a result, people who might benefit from dietary supplements or prescription medicines don’t realize these products’ full health benefits.

PR practitioners have the opportunity to disseminate communications that make a tangible difference in patient care. Hopefully, increased knowledge will ensure patients can access safe, effective dietary supplements in the course of aiding their health.

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Arielle Bernstein is group VP-health at Makovsky.