In the past, it was widely considered unthinkable for a physician to sell or even promote health products. But some doctors seeking extra income have turned to side businesses selling nutritional supplements, often out of their own offices. While it's not clear how many health-care professionals engage in this practice, a survey published in March 2010 by the Nutrition Business Journal, a trade publication, of 600 medical doctors, naturopathic physicians, chiropractors, nutritionists, and other practitioners revealed that 76 percent sell supplements in the office.
We don't know what percentage of the respondents were M.D.s, as opposed to alternative-care practitioners. But that remarkable figure does suggest that a significant number of mainstream medical professionals are now vying for a share of the $26.7 billion-a-year U.S. supplement market. Indeed, industry analysts predict that health-care practitioners could be among the fastest-growing sales channels for supplements over the next decade.
Selling supplements might yield a handsome profit for some doctors. But having a financial stake in promoting any health product to patients represents a serious conflict of interest. It subverts the responsibility of physicians to place their patients' interests before their own opportunity for financial gain. It also places undue pressure on the patient, especially if the pitch is aggressive. And it can erode trust in the doctor, as was the case with my friend.
For those reasons, the American Medical Association advises that physicians who distribute nonprescription health products provide them free or at their own cost. That removes the temptation of personal profit that can interfere with the physician's objective clinical judgment.