A pediatrician at Brenner Children's Hospital (Winston-Salem, N.C.) has developed an efficient way to help educate health care professionals on herbal and dietary supplements via the Internet, according to a study published in the September issue of Academic Medicine.

Kathi Kemper, M.D., a pediatrician at Brenner Children's Hospital, worked with physicians from the Longwood Herbal Task Force to develop a series of e-mails containing information and questions about various herbal and dietary supplements.

Over 537 healthcare professionals participated in the e-mail series, which took place over 10 weeks. Participants were asked questions twice a week about herbal supplements and were given a link to an Internet site for more information about each topic. The questions focused on the more popular herbal remedies like Saw Palmetto and Gingko Biloba, found in most area supermarkets and drugstores.

Participants were also given a pre and post-test to see if they increased their knowledge base and if they were more confident in their ability to answer their patients' questions and find the resources they needed. Scores on the post-test showed an improvement in the knowledge scores from 67 percent at baseline to 80 percent following the curriculum.

"We were pleased that so many healthcare professionals chose to participate in the program, in the absence of formal course credit, certification or continuing education credits," Kemper said. "Our study showed that many of the professionals really did change their approach to these remedies and increased their education level without a significant time investment."

Over 50 percent of adults use herbs and other dietary supplements, in conjunction with prescriptions and over the counter medications, to treat chronic health conditions. They are the most commonly used complementary and alternative medicine in the United States. Yet, many physicians lack basic knowledge of these remedies and need education on the risks and benefits of herbal and dietary supplements.

"Increasingly, patients are entering physicians' offices, asking questions about herbal remedies and dietary supplements and how they might improve their lives," said Kemper. "Often the physician lacks resources and does not have up-to-date information about these remedies.

"We were looking for ways to educate and increase a physician's confidence in this growing area of medicine without taking a considerable amount of their time," Kemper said.

Of the 537 participants, 84 percent were in practice or on faculty, and the other 16 percent were students, residents, postdoctoral trainees, pharmacy students and registered dietitians. Over 45 states were represented in the study. Several health care practitioners from other countries requested to participate in the study, but were not allowed due to differences in cultures and how the remedies are used overseas.

"We are planning a follow-up to this study since the interest was high," Kemper said. "We are toying with the format to find the best approach and looking at ways to include more health care providers."

The Longwood Herbal Task Force included professionals from Boston Children's Hospital, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Click here to view all 20 questions used in this series, as well as information on other herbal and dietary supplements.