Health Professionals Need More Nutrition Education. How Can We Deliver?

By Allison Dostal, PhD

It’s not a revelation that most Americans would benefit from increased nutrition education and guidance. Newly released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention1 show that 64% of Americans are overweight or obese – a number that’s held steady over the past few decades – and that nearly 40% of us consume less than 1 serving of fruits or vegetables daily. $210 billion is spent annually on obesity-related disease2.

It is known, perhaps intuitively, that physicians trained in nutrition achieve improved health outcomes in patients with obesity-related conditions3. Numerous clinical guidelines recommend that physicians counsel their overweight and obese patients on diet, and yet, fewer than 25% feel that they received adequate training in doing so. As a result, only 1 in 8 medical visits includes a discussion of nutrition4,5. This disconnect in recommendations versus practice is a significant issue in medical education today, and the perennial discussion of how to improve the current state of nutrition education in the medical curriculum continues to increase in relevance in our nation’s obesity crisis.

The Problem

It is recommended that physicians-in-training receive 25 contact hours of nutrition education, including basic nutrition knowledge, assessment, nutrition intervention, and dietary treatment of disease. However, nutrition education in medical schools has continued to fall below this target – and it’s getting worse. A 2012 survey4 found that most medical schools fail to require the recommended amount of nutrition education, with less than 15% of schools providing the 25-hour minimum. The number of hours devoted to nutrition education has dropped substantially since 2004, while the number of schools with no required nutrition education has risen4.

Compounding this issue, many medical training programs provide only basic nutrition background, often buried within a biochemistry or physiology course. While it is undeniably important to highlight the specific actions of vitamins and minerals, this model fails to highlight real-world clinical application of nutrition. Even less time is devoted to developing patient counseling skills. Lastly, the U.S.’s health professional training systems do not provide expertise or incentives to deliver effective counseling on how to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, diet, and physical activity level. This leads to a divide in thinking – a “should” or “want to do” versus “need to” or “have time to do”, and a reduced sense of urgency about implementing changes.

Working Toward a Solution

In addition to a lack of monetary or standard-of-care incentive to increase knowledge dissemination, another primary reason for suboptimal nutrition education is lack of time. This exists both in the amount of time devoted to actual coursework within medical training and for development of a nutrition curriculum within a program. Fortunately, several groups have worked diligently to provide resources that alleviate these barriers. In contrast to many programs that are specific to a particular institution, Nutrition in Medicine6, is a web-based series for students and healthcare professionals, administered through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Department of Nutrition. There are over 40 modules ranging from 15 to 60 minutes in length that offer basic nutrition knowledge as well as evidence-based instruction of clinical skills. In addition to providing biochemical, clinical, and epidemiological components and virtual case studies, NIM also offers nutrition tools like pocket notes, nutrient recommendations, quizzes, and YouTube video vignettes. Nearly 75% of U.S. medical schools take advantage of at least one NIM module, and the program has proven to be successful in providing 33% more nutrition education in schools that use NIM versus those that do not.

And the best part? It’s completely free.

Future Directions

Despite the advances made by NIM in improving the dissemination of nutrition knowledge in the medical curriculum, challenges remain. Martin Kohlmeier, NIM’s principal investigator, has acknowledged that building good nutrition education tools is expensive and time consuming, since materials need to be reviewed continuously and updated every 4-5 years. Supporting a web-based tool takes a significant amount of resources, and funding sources are difficult to consistently maintain.

Recently, this cause has been taken up by several prominent health and medicine-focused organizations. A new effort has been launched to teach medical students, physicians, and other allied health professionals how to discuss obesity treatment and prevention options with patients. This initiative is a collaboration between the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. The multi-year project, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will develop “core competencies for obesity prevention, management, and treatment for the health professional training pipeline and identify payment policies that will incentivize the delivery of this care”, as stated in their April 11th press release7. Their goals are for these competencies to be implemented in training programs across the full spectrum of health professionals, and to determine a strategy to reimburse effective counseling for maintaining a healthy weight, diet, and physical activity level. “Training health professionals without a concurrent strategy to reimburse this type of care will not lead to meaningful change. And offering payment without having trained professionals to provide the care also will not result in improve[d] patient care,” the group stated.

This working group, like those involved in the Nutrition in Medicine curriculum, acknowledges that systemic changes to improve nutrition education in medical training will require continuous commitment from a wide range of stakeholders. Details of this initiative have not yet been announced, but those of us involved in education and clinical care certainly look forward to seeing the first steps begin.

Are you a health care professional, student, or educator? What is your experience in teaching or learning nutrition and nutrition counseling skills? I welcome your comments and insight on this issue.

References

1.Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity Data, Trends and Maps web site. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, Atlanta, GA, 2015. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/DNPAO/index.html.

2.Cawley J and Meyerhoefer C. The Medical Care Costs of Obesity: An Instrumental Variables Approach. Journal of Health Economics, 31(1): 219-230, 2012.

3.Rosen BS, Maddox PJ, Ray N. A position paper on how cost and quality reforms are changing healthcare in America: focus on nutrition. Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition 2013;37(6):796–801.

4.Adams, K.M., Kohlmeier, M., & Zeisel, S.H. Nutrition Education in U.S. Medical Schools: Latest Update of a National Survey. Academic Medicine. 2010;85(9): 1537-1542.

5.Early KB, Adams KM, Kohlmeier M. Analysis of Nutrition Education in Osteopathic Medical Schools. Journal of Biomedical Education, vol. 2015, Article ID 376041, 6 pages, 2015. doi:10.1155/2015/376041

6.K. M.Adams, M.Kohlmeier, M. Powell, and S. H. Zeisel, “Nutrition in medicine: nutrition education for medical students and residents. Nutrition in Clinical Practice. 2010;25(5), 471–480. Available at: http://nutritioninmedicine.org/

7.Bipartisan Policy Center. New Effort Launch to Train Health Professionals in Nutrition and Physical Activity. http://bipartisanpolicy.org. 21 Mar. 2016.

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