Understanding the HCP Spectrum of Influence on Supplement Brands: From Vitalists to Pragmatists

Whether you are a supplement brand that sells directly through healthcare professionals (HCPs) or that sells directly to consumers, you need to know what influences HCPs’ supplement decisions and recommendations.

In the changing omnichannel landscape where the lines between consumer and HCP brands are blurring, all supplement brands can improve their business with a better understanding of how HCPs influence supplement purchases.

Why is that? Interest and engagement in integrative health and medicine are expanding rapidly. Forty-nine percent of adults believe in the efficacy of many or some alternative medicines and therapies. The practitioner channel currently represents approximately 9% of all US supplement sales, but its influence on the overall sale of supplements is far greater. What HCPs recommend translates into consumer sales.

In the changing omnichannel landscape where the lines between consumer and HCP brands are blurring, all supplement brands can improve their business with a better understanding of how HCPs influence supplement purchases.

Navigating the Holistic Spectrum

In both integrative and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), the majority of HCPs are holistic in their approach. However, the term “holistic” is broadly and inconsistently defined, and along the spectrum of this definition some HCPs take a more “vitalistic” approach, whereas others align more closely with a “pragmatic” approach. These terms denote two ends of a spectrum regarding health philosophy, approach to health care, and therapeutic choices.

We know this from interviews of HCPs through quantitative and qualitative interviews including visits to their offices, the conferences they frequent, their writings, and conversations with their thought leaders. In our just-published report, US & Canada Market Landscape of Healthcare Professionals Who Utilize Dietary Supplements 2023, we provide a comprehensive overview of all healthcare professional credentials that wield significant influence over the use of dietary supplements and holistic remedies within their patient communities.

Understanding this holistic spectrum is essential for supplement brands that want to engage with this influential and significant customer base because they are the first link in the B2B2C business model. Our census-balanced consumer segmentation research, involving over 2,000 adult U.S. supplement users, unequivocally demonstrates that certain consumer segments profoundly prioritize the recommendations of their healthcare professionals when selecting supplement brands.

Defining the Terms: Vitalism and Pragmatism

Vitalism is rooted in the belief of a unique life force, energy, spirit, or spark that transcends purely chemical or physical forces. Vitalists believe in the body’s innate ability to heal itself, and they embrace a holistic belief in the mind, body, and spirit to the fullest extent.

Pragmatism involves analyzing the component parts of a system and breaking them down into even simpler parts. This approach, more reductionistic than vitalism, is the dominant paradigm in Western medicine. Health professionals transitioning from Western medicine to integrative or functional approaches often see health through a system’s lens. Compared to their vitalist counterparts, pragmatists are more likely to focus on targeted therapeutic interventions.

The Power of Alignment 

Healthcare professionals who influence supplement purchases, including integrative physicians, physician assistants, nurses, naturopathic doctors, chiropractors, acupuncturists, and more, bring their unique perspectives when considering supplements. Some rely entirely on a single brand they trust. Others use many different brands and conduct extensive research to find the most efficacious product, regardless of brand, for their patients’ needs.

Their evaluation criteria span the spectrum, from evidence-based products with clinical validation to their own personal clinical via methods like applied kinesiology. Some also consider quality ratings provided by distributors. What remains consistent is their inclination to collaborate with supplement brands aligning with their philosophical stance on healthcare. The nature of this alignment varies significantly between vitalists and pragmatists, making it crucial for supplement brands to pinpoint where their target HCPs align on the holistic spectrum.

For instance, a brand backed by comprehensive clinical validation and research papers resonates more with pragmatists, while brands embracing herbal wisdom and alternative testing methods like applied kinesiology find favor with vitalist practitioners.

Navigating the Complex Landscape

Can you appeal to both vitalists and pragmatists simultaneously? The answer, while nuanced, hinges on numerous variables. However, from a branding perspective, it’s essential to recognize how your approach aligns with the holistic spectrum of healthcare practitioners. Striving to be everything to everyone is a futile endeavor, so align with your core values, and others will naturally gravitate towards your brand for complementary attributes.

Don’t Confuse Credential with Approach

Something we have discovered through our work with these professionals is that within each healthcare credential there is a holistic spectrum. Acupuncturists, for example, are firmly rooted in vitalism. Where they differ from each other is in how much they strictly adhere to traditional Chinese medicine or are willing to experiment with other forms of healing and nutrition.

Licensed naturopathic doctors, however, have a much more diverse makeup. Half align more closely with a vitalist philosophy and half with pragmatist philosophy. The vitalist group wants to be seen as separate from the conventional medical system, relying on nature and natural modalities, whereas the pragmatist group wants to be viewed as part of the medical system and as fulfilling a primary-care role focusing more on evidence-based methods.

As you can see from these examples, marketing to credentials is important, but so too is knowing that within each credential there is often a wide range of approaches that a brand must be aware of and align with. 

Fostering Confidence

One of the challenges that holistic practitioners face, regardless of where they fall along the holistic spectrum, is feeling secure in their credibility. Conventional medicine does a good job of questioning non-AMA-approved approaches. It’s critical for supplement brands to provide their target practitioners with as much support as possible that validates their choice of supplements and aligns with their philosophical beliefs. These HCPs have made a bold choice to work in unconventional ways, and any substantial support that aligns with their beliefs will be rewarded.

This article was originally published in the October/November 2023 Nutrition Industry Executive.