The ethical shortcomings of selling supplements

A crunchy friend of mine on Facebook re-posted something from an even crunchier friend of hers who was shocked to find that many naturopaths sell supplements. Actually, she feels that selling them is okay; so is prescribing them. But selling what they prescribe apparently tips her ethics meter over into “unacceptable”.

As I read her screed against  the ND who conducted a cursory history and exam before checking off $750 worth of supplements on a pre-printed sheet (Visa, Mastercard, and Discover accepted, I’m sure) I felt my heart lift. Yes, I thought. Now you’re getting it. When she advocated hiring a naturopath who doesn’t do this, I found myself telling the screen, “Good luck with that.”

The poster was also, rightfully, concerned about “the heart of the practitioner.” She places great emphasis on intent. Question for her: what about the practitioner who really, truly feels that the only supplements good enough for her patients are the ones she is selling? You’d probably think she’d been hoodwinked by marketing, and you’d be right.

Here’s the thing, though: you yourself have been hoodwinked by the marketing of the entire “Natural Health” industry. Naturopathic medicine, energy healing, homeopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture, and all the rest are nothing but non-scientific hokum.

Some of it emerged before science had developed sufficient understanding of the human body. Others, like chiropractic, were actually invented in order to make money selling them to practitioners (who were understood to then turn around and use them to take money from patients.) There is no way to learn — and really understand — chemistry and then turn around and believe in homeopathy. Emerging consensus reveals that acupuncture is nothing more than an elaborate placebo.

Recognizing the ethical shortcomings inherent in the sales and marketing of supplements is the first step. The next is the painful understanding that those who sell “education” and “training” to become a “Natural Health care provider” are just as unethical, selling nonsense in lieu of science to people whose disappointments with “regular” (ie, real) medical care leave them vulnerable to the wish fulfillment that is “holistic” care. I’ve written about this before.

It’s important not to confuse the message and the messenger, or rather the material and the teacher. It’s possible, even likely, that the vast majority of natural health practitioners really believe that what they’re doing is legitimate; just like that Naturopath who really feels that her supplements are so much better than cheaper alternatives.

This friend of a friend goes on to give this advice:

Bottom line is this – if you are in the natural health field, or are planing a career in it – choose which side of the coin you want to be on – 1) patient care, consulting, advocating and teaching, or 2) retail, sales, product marketing. Both of these are perfectly fine when apart – it is the mixing of the two that causes my heart to sink.

The existence of the whole “natural health field” is what causes my heart to sink. I ache for those whose bad experiences with “conventional medicine” — that is to say, medicine — have caused them to look for alternatives. But for anyone looking for a career in the health field, make it a real health field, like nursing or medical school, EMR/paramedic/first responder training, or become a doula or lactation consultant. As for those already there, please take a long, hard look in the mirror, and think about what you are really selling.

Lucy Hornstein is a family physician who blogs at Musings of a Dinosaur, and is the author of Declarations of a Dinosaur: 10 Laws I’ve Learned as a Family Doctor.

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