Study determines medical students need more education after finding they are “overconfident and unprepared” – especially regarding nutrition

Most people turn to doctors when they think they’re coming down with something or if they have questions about their health and nutrition. But what happens when medical students, future doctors themselves, can only grasp at straws when it comes to concerns about nutritional guidelines?

The results of a study published in the October edition of The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association reveal a worrying concern: The majority of medical students are “overconfident” and “underprepared” when asked about nutritional guidelines. Researchers from the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine surveyed 257 medical students, and while 55 percent of the participants were confident that they could advise patients about nutritional guidelines, half of those surveyed did not get a passing score on a nutrition quiz. (Related: Nutrition Secrets “They” Don’t Want You to Know About.)

According to Elizabeth Beverly, Ph.D., assistant professor at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, there’s a “long-standing disconnect in medicine” because even though nutrition is viewed as a key component for overall health, physician education is not giving it the attention it deserves.

Based on the study, only an underwhelming 12 percent of the medical students surveyed knew about Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs). According to the National Institutes of Health, DRIs is a catch-all term for “a set of reference values used to plan and assess nutrient intakes of healthy people”.

The researchers recruited participants using e-mail invitations, and these invitations were sent through school-maintained listserves. The participants included first- and second-year osteopathic medical students from various campuses of the university. The study was voluntary and participants received an incentive of a $15 gift card.

Those who took the online survey were presented with “a short demographic form, a nutrition quiz, and six questions about the respondent’s beliefs of a primary care physician’s role in nutrition counseling. The participants were also asked about their knowledge of “dietary reference intakes,” their comfort level when it comes to nutrition counseling and designing nutrition plans, their understanding of the role of registered dietitians or registered dietitian nutritionists on the health care team, and their thoughts on the importance of nutrition education in medical school.

Even though more than half of the students surveyed did not pass the nutrition quiz, 68 percent of the participants stated their belief that primary care physicians must advise patients about nutrition.

Beverly, who is also the lead author of the study, explained that this “lack of knowledge” about dietary reference intakes, which helps physicians identify the nutrient and energy intake that their patients need, is a cause for concern. These guidelines will often vary drastically due to factors such as a patient’s age, gender, pregnancy, or even disease.

In the report, the researchers conclude, “To address the growing rate of obesity and obesity-related chronic diseases in the United States, osteopathic medical students would benefit from the integration of more nutrition education in the curriculum.”

The National Academy of Science suggests that doctors receive at least 25 hours of nutrition education. However, several studies have revealed that most medical schools do not meet this goal. Earlier studies imply that “overly confident doctors are not as likely to seek additional resources and more likely to misdiagnose patients.”

Beverly concluded, “Medical schools are focused on preparing students to pass board certification exams. Currently, nutrition knowledge is not evaluated by most certification boards.” She continued, “If we can change that, schools will adjust their curriculum accordingly and we should ultimately see an improvement in patient education and care.”

Researchers have championed the addition of nutrition-related competencies such as nutrition questions on board certification examinations to help make sure that medical schools maintain the minimum number of hours of nutrition education for medical students.

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