Concerns about advice from staff in health food stores

A study published in the New Zealand Medical Journal today raises concerns about advice being given by people working in health food shops.

Twenty six health food stores and 26 pharmacies were visited by a 53-year-old male for advice about a hypothetical problem with high blood pressure.

In New Zealand, complementary and alternative medicines are widely available in health food stores, supermarkets and pharmacies, but they are not registered medicines and do not undergo the rigerous scrutiny that registerd pharmaceuticals are required to go through  prior to registration and marketing. Also, unlike pharmacists, staff working in health food stores are not required to undergo formal training or registration and as a result this may place customers at risk of being given ineffective or harmful advice.

Results of this study showed that in the 26 pharmacies, the individual was referred straight to the pharmacist if the first contact with with a shop assistant. Of the 26 pharmacists, 25 recommended an immediate trip to the GP, the other pharmacist recommended that antioxidants and multi-vitamins, together with stress reduction, regular exercise and a fish meal once a week, would reduce blood pressure within 2 weeks.

Staff in 25 of the 26 health food stores did not refer the individual to a medical practitioner, instead the recommended a wide variety of treatments of unproven efficacy. Garlic was the most popular supplement recommended, which accounted for 16 of the 24 prescriptions sold.

Concerns expressed by the authors relate not only to advice provided to customers, but also to quality control of the products sold. An attempt to introduce a superior Australian regulatory processes for complementary and alternative medicines in New Zealand failed in 2007. Say the authors, it is crucial that this issue is revisited to allow for the much needed regulation of complimentary medicines in New Zealand.

It is important that staff working in health food stores need to give accurate and safe information on a variety of medical ailments to their customers. The authors recommend the implementation of a formal training programme for health food store staff, and an improvement in the quality of health care advice including referral to a medical practitioner where appropriate. Complimentary and alternative medicines use in New Zealand should also be regulated.

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Dominion Post – page A9

For a copy of the paper and an accompanying editorial, log in to the resource section of the Science Media Centre website.