BY SIMRIT KAUR
You are what you eat, and no one knows this better than dietitians and nutritionists. Deciding which of these two healthcare professionals to see depends on your state of health.
A nutritionist talks to healthy people about good eating habits while dietitians speak to sick people about suitable diets for their particular conditions.
The opportunity to work in a hospital is what attracted former nutritionist Teng Yu Yuet to her chosen profession as a dietitian.
Teng, manager of the dietetics department at Sunway Medical Centre, did a Bachelor of Science in Human Nutrition at Curtin University of Technology in Australia before returning to Malaysia to work as a nutritionist in a health care company.
However, Teng's interest in clinical work led her to complete a Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics at Flinders University, also in Australia, which qualified her to work in a hospital.
She says: “Nutritionists learn more about the science of food and nutrition. They disseminate knowledge on the effects of nutrition on growth, development, health and well-being of the general population. On the other hand, dietitians are trained not only to promote nutritional well-being but also perform diet therapy as part of the treatment of diseases and prevention of dietary related health problems.”
In Malaysia, only Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia offers both nutrition and dietetics degree programmes. Universiti Sains Malaysia offers a dietetics programme while Universiti Putra Malaysia has a nutrition programme.
At present, no formal registration is required to practise as a dietitian or nutritionist. However, both nutritionists and dietitians will be included in the proposed Allied Health Professional Act.
At Sunway Medical Centre, a session with a dietitian can last up to one hour and cost RM50. “It is not easy for someone to change his dietary habits as it involves a behavioural change. Dietitians usually have to spend some time doing detailed assessment on a patient's current dietary practices and then educate and counsel patients on the necessary dietary changes tailored to their indivi-dual health conditions,'' says Teng.
Among the common diseases requiring dietary intervention are diabetes, high blood cholesterol, heart disease, kidney disease, obesity, cancer and eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa.
Teng also counsels children who are at both ends of the weight spectrum: obesity and “failure to thrive” or who are not growing in tandem with their age.
What qualifications do you need?
You need either a degree or postgraduate qualification in dietetics. Clinical placement and internship are a must.
What does a dietitian do?
A dietitian is a trained and qualified healthcare professional with skills to answer a patient's queries on health and nutrition and plan out diet therapy according to a patient's disease. Dietitians monitor and adjust the diet plan as the patient's condition changes. Dietary counselling is done for patients who require dietary changes.
They also counsel the patient and family members on how to prepare and follow the diet.
Besides working in hospitals as clinical dietitians, they can work in the food industry, tertiary educational institutions, commercial and research settings or freelance as consultant dietitians. Overseas, dietitians can work in community settings and do a lot of health promotions and public talks.
Describe a typical day at work.
We go for routine ward rounds and screen inpatients who are nutritionally at risk. Based on a doctor's referral, we do the nutritional assessment and initiate dietary intervention or education for the patients. Besides that, we run out outpatient diet counselling sessions.
We also have quite a fair bit of paperwork to deal with – preparing leaflets to give patients, for instance. Sometimes we have to prepare specific diet plans for patients. Dietitians also conduct diet-related education sessions for nurses and other hospital staff. They are also involved when the hospital arranges a diet-related public forum.
What kind of personality suits this career?
A pleasant personality which includes being friendly, approachable and helpful. A dietitian has to be a good listener and tactful in dealing with someone's psycho-social problems that may contribute to his nutritional risk.
He should also be resourceful and innovative in developing good educational tools which help get the nutrition message across.
After all, we have to interpret scientific information into layman's language so that patients will understand.
A dietitian also has to be a team player - we work as part of a multi-disciplinary healthcare team to help patients recover.
What's the best part of your job?
The best part is when we see patients get well through our dietary intervention. We share the joy of patients who are admitted in a very serious condition but who are able to walk out of hospital after medical treatment and specialised nutritional support.
What's the worst part?
There are so many things to do that we are often racing against time and work tends to pile up.
What is the salary range?
The starting salary for a fresh graduate can range from RM2,000 to RM2,500.
What are the career prospects?
Dietitians can go into many areas . It's a flexible and dynamic profession – after all, everyone has to eat! The prospects are improving, with increasing health conciousness among the population. People are looking for more nutrition and health information.
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