Although Hong Kong has the longest life expectancy in the world, people with chronic illnesses gets younger, and the “three highs” are no longer confined to the elderly. In recent years, many service providers offered consultation services on nutritious diet and exercise that aim at helping consumers to manage their diet and body weight for better health. The Consumer Council has conducted a survey on the nutrition services of 20 different service providers and found that the services were very diverse in the market ranging from one-off nutritious advisory consultation, to packaged services that covered traditional Chinese and/or western medical clinical services, exercise guides and health check items. Fees ranged from several hundred dollars for a single item to tens of thousands of dollars for a package. The Consumer Council reminds consumers that before they engage any services, they should set clear their goals and consult medical professionals in advance. Their decision should be based solely on factors such as their physique, health conditions, affordability and verification of relevant qualification of the service providers concerned, but not solely enticed by promotion. In addition, nowadays many body weight management schemes or extreme dietary plans are freely available on the internet, consumers should not follow them blindly to avoid putting their health at risk.
The Council has contacted a total of 37 private service providers that offered nutritional and dietary services, including non-government organizations or research centers at universities, private hospitals, private clinics and nutritional centers, to collect information on the details of their consultation services through questionnaires. By the deadline, 16 service providers invited (43%) refused to respond or did not respond on various excuses, such high rejection rate indicated there is room for improvement in the information transparency on the part of some organizations.
Of the 20 service providers supported the study, 5 were non-government organizations or university research centers, 9 private hospitals and 6 private clinics or nutritional centers. They all provided out-patient consultation services at a fee for each visit. The fee for the first consultation ranged from $280 to $1,380, a nearly fourfold difference. Fees for follow-up visits charged by 17 organizations were lower than the first visit while 3 other organizations charged the same amount. Of the 9 private hospitals that provided in-patient nutritional consultation services, 5 charged fees at levels according to the classes of the hospital wards. At one hospital, the minimum first consultation fee for a general ward patient was $970 while the fee for a first-class ward patient could be as high as $2,180, a difference of more than 1.2 times.
If consumers want to choose a nutrition service package, the fee is wide enough to fit individual’s affordability but the sessions covered for diet, medical treatment and exercise would be very different. Of the 38 consultation packages provided by 15 service providers, 31 packages were for losing or gaining weight for a fee ranging from $730 to $28,966, a difference of nearly 39 times. The package of lowest price offered 3 sessions of nutritional consultation while the most expensive one included 113 sessions of nutritional consultation, health check items and 2 sessions of exercise under the guidance of a physical fitness instructor. The Council reminds consumers that they should make a rational choice based on their needs and affordability but not rushing into a decision just because they are anxious to reach a certain goal. If they prefer to have a taste of the service, they can first seek professional advice on their diet as usually an nutritional advisory service alone would include an analysis of physique and dietary habit as well as the design of a personal dietary scheme, etc.
If the need is stemming out of illness, 17 packages were suitable for patients with kidney diseases or diabetes (with 1 only restricted to patients with gestational diabetes), with fees ranging from $730 to $6,500. Some service providers required a doctor’s referral for kidney diseases or diabetes patients seeking nutritional consultation service. One of them even asked for a medical report. For another private hospital, patients had to exceed their Body Mass Index (BMI) level to a certain degree and require regular assessment by a doctor.
Consumers should note that subject to the types of services, 2 of the 20 service providers surveyed do not provide services by dietitians that had relevant registered qualifications in overseas. However, they claimed that disease-related nutritional consultation would be given by registered dietitians.
According to the Hong Kong Academy of Accredited Dietitians (HKAAD), anyone who holds a degree in nutrition is eligible for providing nutritional advice on weight control for healthy persons. However, those who are suffering from certain illnesses, including chronic illnesses, should be treated by an accredited dietitian who has been clinically trained. However, at present there is no statutory registration for dietitians or nutritionist in Hong Kong, thus, anyone can claim to be a dietitian or nutritionist. Consumers may not be able to tell the difference among various titles, such as ‘Dietitian’, ‘Nutritionist’, ‘Accredited Dietitian’, or ‘Nutrition Therapist’. The Council reminds consumers that to ensure the practitioners meets their needs and expectation, they should try to verify from the websites of the corresponding professional medical groups on the relevant recognized academic or professional qualifications of the practitioner.
In addition, extreme dietary methods have been widely circulated in the public domain from time to time, claiming to be able to achieve weight control within a short period of time. Consumers should not blindly follow these methods but to consult their doctors or dietitians, especially for the elderly or those suffering from chronic illnesses, to avoid the risk of side effects such as low blood sugar, dizziness, lack of energy, or in more serious cases, dietary disorders including anorexia or bulimia. If consumers are looking for nutrition services, they should pay heed to the following:
- Be proactive in verifying the recognized academic or professional qualifications of the dietitian assigned, especially when it concerns the management of nutrition and diets for people with illness. Such services should be provided by accredited dietitians who have received relevant clinical training;
- To lose weight drastically within a short period of time has its risk. It is advisable to lose 1 to 2 pounds a week by reducing daily calorie intake and doing more physical exercise. A good nutritional diet advice should be followed up regularly and adjusted according to the progress with the emphasis on a balanced diet;
- BMI is not the only indicator to access underweight or overweight, especially for elderly or those who exercise regularly. Elderly with obesity could be the result of a drop in metabolism, certain medications or a lack of exercise. They should not just pick a programme to follow;
- Don’t easily believe in the claims of health supplements. Do not buy health products without serious consideration. Be alert if a service provider only tries to sell products such as meal replacements, vitamins or weight loss products.
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