Oncologists Not Properly Discussing Supplement Use with Patients

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Many physicians cite a lack of knowledge of supplement use by oncologists as a primary reason.
Many physicians cite a lack of knowledge of supplement use by oncologists as a primary reason.

Fewer than half of oncologists bring up the subject of herbs or supplements with their patients, with many doctors citing their own lack of information as a major reason why they skip the conversation, according to research published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The researchers asked 392 oncologists about their views and knowledge of supplements. The average age of those who responded was 48 years. About three-quarters of them were men, and about three-quarters were white. The specialists polled talked about supplements with 41 percent of their patients.

However, doctors initiated only 26 percent of these discussions. The survey also revealed that two out of three oncologists believed they didn't have enough information about herbs and supplements to answer their patients' questions. Of all the doctors surveyed, 59 percent said they had no education on these products.

When asked about a hypothetical patient with a curable form of cancer, 80 percent of the oncologists surveyed said they would actively discourage the use of an unknown herb with chemotherapy.

Still, 86 percent of the doctors said that within the past year they provided chemotherapy to at least one patient who was taking a dietary supplement.

RELATED: Survey Explores Oncologists' Knowledge, Practice Patterns Surrounding Herb and Supplement Use

The researchers also found that 90 percent said they would likely provide chemotherapy to a patient who insisted on taking an unknown herb -- even if their cancer was curable with conventional treatment.

"Lack of knowledge about herbs and supplements, and awareness of that lack of knowledge is probably one of the reasons why oncologists don't initiate the discussion," study author Richard Lee, M.D., medical director of the Integrative Medicine Program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, told HealthDay. "It's really about getting more research out there and more education so oncologists can feel comfortable having these conversations."


  1. Lee, Richard T., et al. "National Survey of US Oncologists' Knowledge, Attitudes, and Practice Patterns Regarding Herb and Supplement Use by Patients With Cancer." Journal of Clinical Oncology. doi: 10.1200/JCO.2014.55.8676. November 17, 2014.

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