Is Dr. Holick Interested in Vitamin D Health or Profits?
Dr. Michael Holick has emphatically endorsed the use of vitamin D, claiming it’s the number one thing that we all need more of. His persuasive messages regarding the benefits of taking the supplement and his role in penning national vitamin D guidelines have helped pushed supplement sales to $936 million last year, increasing profits nine-fold. Lab tests for vitamin D deficiency have drastically increased, too, with physicians ordering more than 10 million for Medicare patients in 2016.
However, there may be more motivating Dr. Holick than simply the health benefits of vitamin D. A recent investigation found he has used his status to promote practices that financially benefit corporations. These corporations, in turn, have offered him hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits. Dr. Holick, 72, has acknowledged he’s worked as a consultant to Quest Diagnostics for four decades, which performs vitamin D deficiency testing and said the money received “doesn’t influence me in terms of talking about the health benefits of vitamin D.”
In June 2011, Dr. Holick oversaw the publication of a report that claimed, “vitamin D deficiency is very common in all age groups” and advocated a large expansion of vitamin D testing, targeting more than half the United States population, including African Americans, Hispanics and those who are obese – these groups all tend to have lower vitamin D levels. The report helped cause testing for a deficiency to be the fifth-most-common lab test covered by Medicare.
“We know we’re concerned about skin cancer, but to avoid all direct sunlight actually increases risks for vitamin D deficiency,” Dr. Holick said. “D deficiency can potentially increase your risk for many chronic illnesses.” The guidelines also stated vitamin D levels need to be much higher than those in the medical field originally stated. Thus, many commercial labs adopted the higher standard. However, there’s no evidence that people with higher levels are any healthier than those with lower levels.
Dr. Clifford Rosen, a senior scientist at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute and co-author of the National Academy report said, because the study indicates 80 percent of Americans have lower than needed levels of vitamin D, “we see people being tested all the time and being treated based on a lot of wishful thinking, that you can take a supplement to be healthier.” Dr. Alex Krist, a family physician and vice chairman of the United States Preventive Services Task Force, said companies are the ones who benefit, adding, “it’s in their financial interest.”
In a 2010 book, “The Vitamin D Solution,” Dr. Holick gave readers tips to encourage them to get their blood tested. He even listed the reimbursement codes doctors should use when requesting coverage from insurance providers. “If they use the wrong coding when submitting the claim to the insurance company, they won’t get reimbursed and you will wind up having to pay for the test,” Dr. Holick wrote. He said that while he has worked for Quest Diagnostics since 1979, he is not motivated by the profits associated with testing. “I don’t get any additional money if they sell one test or one billion,” he said.
A Quest spokesperson, Wendy Bost, said, “We feel strongly that being able to work with the top experts in the field, whether it’s vitamin D or another area, translates to better quality and better information, both for our patients and physicians.”