Study Shows Medical Students Undertrained but Overconfident on Nutrition

A new study found that many medical students lack the knowledge to properly counsel patients on nutrition, yet still feel confident to provide recommendations to patients. This is a concerning combination, since primary care physicians are a main source of health-related information for much of the population.

Stethoscope with fruit and veggies

Specifically, the study found only 12% of students were aware of the Dietary Reference Intakes, which are the most current recommendations for nutrient needs based on factors like sex, age, etc. The second year students in the study scored an average of 74.2% on a quiz designed to test nutrition knowledge, yet 68% of the students felt that nutrition counseling was the responsibility of the primary care provider (PCP).

Few students in the study could accurately define the role of Registered Dietitians in patient care, despite RDs being the key resource for medical nutrition therapy for patients.

“The member of the health care team most proficient in medical nutrition therapy or nutrition education and counseling is the registered dietitian (RD) or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). Ideally, physicians would refer patients in need of nutrition counseling to RDs/RDNs. However, most patients are not referred because of countless physician barriers, including time, lack of insurance coverage, finances, and confidence in a patient’s willingness to change behaviors. For this reason, primary care physicians (PCPs) are often the sole source of nutrition education or nutrition counseling”

Although this study was only limited to one medical program, the disconnect between the importance placed on nutrition by study participants and their knowledge gaps means medical training and testing procedures may need to evolve to help fill student needs. The study authors recommend including nutrition knowledge on board certification exams and requiring physicians to shadow RDs/RDNs to better understand their role in the patient care process as potential solutions.