Physician training lacks nutritional, lifestyle focus

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One could point a finger at doctors for spreading the obesity epidemic in the United States by prescribing medication to patients as opposed to teaching better behaviors and healthy lifestyles. However, this judgment may be narrow-minded, to say the least. On a broader scale, American medical schools are not providing future doctors with sufficient knowledge to adapt a preventative role.

In the U.S., the National Academy of Sciences sets a minimum requirement of just 25 hours of nutrition education for medical students – less than the time a student spends in class per week. With that said, doctors are not as well equipped as one would imagine to implement preventive measures for their patients. As a result, students who show specific interest in preventive care must invest more time in their education by taking fellowships after graduating from medical school, which may not be practical, considering how long it already takes to acquire a medical degree. This creates a disparity in healthcare.

A 2010 study conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill concluded that in 2004, the average medical student was looking at 22.3 hours in clinical nutrition education, a number that has since then slid down to a meager 19.6 hours.

Today, only 28 medical schools out of the 105 accredited medical schools in the U.S. reach the minimum 25-hour requirement, whereas in 2004, that number was 40 out of 104. Why this already minimal nutritional education has shrunken further is particularly puzzling, especially when we are facing a population where chronic, preventable diseases are on the rise and unhealthy food products like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s pervade daily life.

At a time when nutritional advice is needed more than ever, medical students are taught to promote Big Pharma instead. This may be because medical schools are generally strongly supported by the pharmaceutical industries, according to the American Medical Student Association’s 2009 college gradings. Students are pushed to deliver medication after the onset of the disease due to a lack of knowledge in preventing the disease before it sprouts. This lack of expertise forces Americans to pump more money into their already-expensive healthcare system and costs patients hundreds of dollars in medical bills for illnesses that could have been avoided.

Medical schools today are creating clinicians who are trained for a much older America, where saying “eat your fruits and vegetables” would suffice. They are still training clinicians for an antiquated population where the majority were purchasing local, farm-grown, minimally-processed produce and cows were eating what they are meant to consume before becoming beef.

They are not, however, creating physicians armed with the resources to target the new, sick population who gain empty calories from a highly synthetic laboratory diet, who remain hungry long after their bellies are full and may be the first to die earlier than their parents, according to a 2005 report published in the New England Journal of Medicine. 

Dr. Pauline Chen of the New York Times believes that for a population like this, clinicians have no guidance on how to prescribe long-term treatment. Well-trained clinicians who have practiced in the art of dietary and nutritional methods and who bring medicine back to nature’s cures are our answer to this epidemic. Until that realization sinks in, more and more Americans will be sucked into an expired healthcare system.

Faizah Shareef is a junior majoring in exercise physiology.