Dietitians filling diverse roles in healthcare as recognition rises

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Published: April 11,2005

Jackson — The star is rising for registered dietitians as the role of these professionals is more widely recognized in healthcare. The Mississippi Dietetic Association has more than 500 members and reports there are probably another 200 or 300 who aren’t members. The president is Teresa Carithers, a professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMC), who epitomizes the profession’s highest ideals.

With her string of degrees and accomplishments, she may not be typical, but she has a passion for bringing all dietitians to the forefront. “It’s a growing field. I’ve seen a tremendous change in the medical community in the last five years. They thought dietitians were important before, but they were not integrated into the programs,” she said. “More schools are employing them, and there are a lot in private practice. I think public interest is driving it.”

She says dietitians were always involved in the academics of healthcare but more recently have become clinically involved with nutrition support with transplant and renal patients, stroke victims, children’s health and public health.

“The obesity epidemic is driving some of the involvement. Programs will be implemented in many areas that haven’t had them before,” she said. “Dietetics was thought of as a soft science involving food production, but the medical community is thinking of dietitians now as a real part of the medical team.”

There are now official codes for medical nutrition therapy that healthcare providers can use for billing.

“People are more interested in being healthy,” Carithers said. “Millions of dollars a year are spent on diet products, so there’s definitely an interest in the public sector for weight management.”

This dietitian believes the South’s food culture, family practices, the proliferation of fast food and sedentary lifestyles are truly causal factors of the obesity epidemic.

“Genetics accounts for a very small percentage of obesity,” she said. “We have to encourage ways to change attitudes. Dietitians are sensitive to that and know there’s no quick fix. We must educate people.”

The demand for dietitians is also growing in traditional places of employment such as food production, service and industry. Carithers stresses to students that the next decade will utilize dietitians as never before as the appreciation of how food is used continues to grow. The number of registered dietitians in the state is nearing 1,000, but she says that isn’t enough.

Pointing out that she isn’t a purist and has had a diverse career, Carithers says she chose to become a dietitian because it’s a caring profession, and that’s important to her. “I’ve enjoyed the aspect of nutrition,” she said. “I was aware that it was not just an understanding of the clinical, and that led me to get advanced degrees. It also interested me in investigations.”

A graduate of Pelahatchie High School, this 47-year- old earned degrees in food and nutrition and healthcare administration from Mississippi College. Wanting to learn more, she did doctoral coursework at the Johns Hopkins University graduate summer program in epidemiology before completing a Ph.D. in preventive medicine at UMC.

Having taught at three levels, she is currently a UMC instructor in the department of preventive medicine, division of medical genetics, and serves as the nutrition education coordinator. She is also an investigator with the nationally recognized Jackson Heart Study and the Diet and Physical Activity Study. She has co-authored many academic manuscripts and holds numerous professional memberships.

“There is no typical day,” she said. “I may begin with a lecture, see patients, write grants and articles and work on the heart study investigation.”

For her, the challenge of being a dietitian is striving to get people to follow recommendations. “We don’t always do what is good for us and I have to deal with that,” she said.

Seeing outcomes with special needs individuals and being a mentor are the rewards of being a dietitian. “A college instructor gave me the confidence to become what I have, and I’ve always felt like I need to give something back,” she said. “There’s no more exciting field. I almost wish I could go back to school again.”

Carithers exemplifies the diverse scope of the field of dietetics. Because of that diversity, she encourages students to avoid getting tunnel vision. “Mississippi dietitians don’t just work in hospitals and clinics anymore. You can find them in private practice or contractual providers within physician practices and insurance agencies,” she said. “There are numerous entrepreneurs managing their own consulting services, health and fitness agencies, and directing corporate wellness programs and working within the hospitality industry.”

She says there aren’t enough hours in a day for relaxation but she loves spending time with her family – husband Charles H. Carithers Jr., and daughter Heather – and being involved with church activities when she has free time.

She admits to having a sweet tooth but prepares and eats healthy foods for the most part. “I treat myself from time to time on special occasions,” she says. “I have a grand appreciation when I sit down to food and I’ve learned to be moderate with all foods.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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