Dr. Greg Plotnikoff has spent more than a decade evangelizing about the health benefits of vitamin D to his medical colleagues across the globe.
Now the Minneapolis-based internist and pediatrician is turning to corporate America, hoping his message will have new resonance amid soaring medical costs and a fragile economic recovery.
Because vitamin D is believed to be effective at treating or preventing such conditions as low-back pain, allergies, migraines, high blood pressure and depression, Plotnikoff thinks the inexpensive pills can play a key role in reducing "presenteeism," where employees merely show up for work but don't get much done. Some studies say the problem costs U.S. employers more than $150 billion a year.
In a soon-to-be-published study, Plotnikoff argues that companies can save $112 to $370 per employee each year in preventable illness and improved productivity by encouraging workers to boost their vitamin D.
"Vitamin D may represent the single most cost-effective medical intervention we have today," he said.
Vitamin D has long been considered essential to helping the body absorb calcium, which is important for strong bones. But in recent years, Plotnikoff and other researchers have argued that higher doses could also help protect against cancer, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, mental illnesses and autoimmune diseases. Not everyone is convinced. A report by the Institute of Medicine in November 2010 noted mixed results in more than 1,000 published studies. But the group said the possible health benefits warrant further investigation.
Boston's Dr. Ravi Thadhani, who is researching the role of vitamin D in heart and kidney disease, said "it's very attractive" to hang medical hopes on vitamin D. But robust scientific evidence isn't there yet.
"Only now are rigorous studies going on to formally test whether any of this is actually true," said Thadhani, an associate professor at the Harvard Medical School and director of clinical research and nephrology at Massachusetts General Hospital. "Over the next few years, we'll finally and formally test this potential link, and we'll have a much better understanding of where we may have benefit" or not.
Plotnikoff hopes his study will take the discussion in a new direction. The study, being published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine's March issue, was based on data from more than 10,600 workers at Minneapolis-based Allina Health. Allina operates the Center for Health Care Innovation and the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing, which Plotnikoff leads.
Plotnikoff co-authored the report with fellow Allina researcher Jeffery Dusek and Michael Finch of the University of Minnesota.
Vitamin D is known as the sunlight vitamin: about 10 minutes of sun exposure a day produces sufficient amounts. It also is found in fish, eggs, fortified milk and cod liver oil. Elderly, obese and dark-skinned people, as well as those who live in northern climates often don't get enough of the vitamin, especially in the winter.
Vitamin D, which is more accurately described a hormone, is as important to the body as estrogen and testosterone, and regulates at least 2,000 genes, Plotnikoff said. Plotnikoff said he remains amazed at the pushback from the medical community some 14 years after studies began looking at vitamin D's impact on health.
"We have no problem ordering a $1,500 MRI or a $90,000 course of Avastin for cancer," he said. "Why wait 10 years for randomized controlled trial ... when you can measure, replenish and see right away if it makes a difference?"
Contact Jackie Crosby at jcrosby(at)startribune.com.
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