The Nation's Health + [vitamin D]

Hospitals are a hell of a place to get sick

I answered a page from a hospital nurse recently one evening while having dinner with the family.

RN: "This is Lonnie. I'm a nurse at _____ Hospital. I've got one of your patients here, Mrs. Carole Simpson. She's here for a knee replacement with Dr. Johnson. She says she's taking 12,000 units of vitamin D every day. That can't be right! So I'm calling to verify."

WD: "That's right. We gauge patients' vitamin D needs by blood levels of vitamin D. Carole has had perfect levels of vitamin D on that dose."

RN: "The pharmacist says he can replace it with a 50,000 unit tablet."

WD: "Well, go ahead while Carole's in the hospital. I'll just put her back on the real stuff when she leaves."

RN: "But the pharmacist says this is better and she won't have to take so many capsules. She takes six 2,000 unit capsules a day."

WD: "The 50,000 units you and the pharmacist are talking about is vitamin D2, or ergocalciferol, a non-human form. Carole is taking vitamin D3, or cholecalciferol, the human form. The last time I checked, Carole was human."

RN: (Long pause.) Can we just give her the 50,000 unit tablet?

WD: "Yes, you can. But you actually don't need to. In fact, it probably won't hurt anything to just hold the vitamin D altogether for the 3 days she's in the hospital, since the half-life of vitamin D is about 8 weeks. Her blood level will barely change by just holding it for 3 days, then resuming when she's discharged."

RN: (Another long pause.) Uh, okay. Can we just give her the 50,000 units?"

WD: "Yes, you can. No harm will be done. It's simply a less effective form. To be honest, once Carole leaves the hospital, I will just put her back on the vitamin D that she was taking."

RN: "Dr. Johnson was worried that it might make her bleed during surgery. Shouldn't we just stop it?"

WD: "No. Vitamin D has no effect on blood coagulation. So there's no concern about perioperative bleeding."

RN: "The pharmacist said the 50,000 unit tablet was better, also, because it's the prescription form, not an over-the-counter form."

WD: "I can only tell you that Carole has had perfect blood levels on the over-the-counter preparation she was taking. It works just fine."

RN: "Okay. I guess we''ll just give her the 50,000 unit tablet."

From the alarm it raises trying to administer nutritional supplements in a hospital, you'd think that Osama Bin Laden had been spotted on the premises.

I laugh about this every time it happens: A patient gets hospitalized for whatever reason and the hospital staff see the supplement list with vitamin D, fish oil at high doses, iodine, etc. and they panic. They tell the patient about bleeding, cancer, and death, issue stern warnings about how unreliable and dangerous nutritional supplements can be.

My view is the exact opposite: Nutritional supplements are a wonderful, incredibly varied, and effective array of substances that, when used properly, can provide all manner of benefits. While there are selected instances in which nutritional supplements do, indeed, have interactions with treatments provided in hospitals (e.g., Valerian root and general anesthesia), the vast majority of supplements have none.