A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last month estimated that over 23,000 emergency department visits occur each year because of adverse events associated with dietary supplements. The study estimated that around ten percent of these visits result in hospitalization. About 72% of the reported visits were associated with weight loss and energy boosting supplements.

The study has been well received both by people concerned about dietary supplements and people in favor of them. Experts concerned about dietary supplements see the study as highlighting the dangers of their use. Experts in favor of dietary supplements see the study as showing their safety, noting that over 150 million Americans use dietary supplements, and the number of adverse events estimated in the study is small in comparison.

Although the percentage of adverse events associated with the use of dietary supplements is small, there are still an estimated 23,000 emergency department visits per year associated with their use. Considering the costs of emergency department visits, these types of adverse events can put a financial burden on patients, insurance companies, hospitals, and the health care system as a whole.

It is unlikely that all of these emergency department visits could be prevented, but reducing the frequency of adverse events caused by dietary supplements could help to reduce the number of visits and could help to cut health care costs, as well. Education on the use of dietary supplements and the potential adverse events associated with them could be an important tool toward that end. Improved education has been proposed by an expert who supports dietary supplements, so it is a solution that could be embraced by people on both sides of the debate over their use.

As this study demonstrates, many of the cost burdens that the health care system faces are preventable, if enough effort is devoted to addressing them.


Marcelo H. Fernandez-Viña is a third-year law student at Drexel's Thomas R. Kline School of Law, concentrating in health law.


Have a health care question or frustration? Share your story »

Read more of The Field Clinic »