Dietetics Education at Texas Tech Plays Important Role in Community Nutrition
Students in the dietetics program at Texas Tech University have a distinct advantage as they prepare for work in the real world – all of their teachers have spent time as clinicians in the real world, doing exactly what they teach their students to do.
"I tell the students when I go to talk to the freshmen what a great program they're in and how lucky they are to be surrounded by people who, No. 1, have their best interests in mind, and No. 2, know what it takes to succeed in this major and in this industry," instructor Allison Childress said. "Our goal is to give them usable, practice-based knowledge, so when they get out of here they'll be able to use what they learned.
"That's one thing that makes our program outstanding."
For National Nutrition Month, Childress, the director of the didactic program in dietetics, and Shelley Fillipp, director of the dietetics internship program, discussed Texas Tech's dietetics education and the opportunities it provides students to take a variety of courses across several disciplines and find their place in a job market that remained strong and is getting stronger.
Becoming a dietitian requires students to earn a degree in nutritional sciences, complete a 1,200-hour dietetics internship and pass a state licensing exam. It also requires a lot of science courses and a willingness to work hard, make good grades and participate in jobs and community service starting from their first semester freshman year.
The payoff, though, is a rewarding job with many different avenues of work in an industry that just keeps growing.
"I can't seem to produce dietitians fast enough," Fillipp said. "The job market is really good in West Texas."
The roles of a dietitian
"What's the difference between a nutritionist and a registered dietitian?" Childress said. "What makes us unique is we are the only nutrition professionals who are able to provide medical nutrition therapy."
What that means, she said, is a registered dietitian can walk into a hospital, a nursing home or rehabilitation center or a hospice organization and work with sick patients on their nutrition, which is part of the big picture of a patient's health. A nutritionist can give basic advice to healthy people, but doesn't have the medical qualifications to be part of patient care.
In hospitals, dietitians work with patients to ensure they're receiving the proper nutrients in the proper amounts to help their bodies heal. They also work with patients who may struggle to eat, such as cancer patients, to find foods they can eat. Dietitians work in neonatal intensive care units to help treat infants who may not be able to digest regular breast milk or formula. Additionally, dietitians can provide nutritional support for patients who are unable to eat at all.
Dietitians also are working in outpatient settings, specializing in treating patients with Celiac disease, Crohn's disease or eating disorders, as well as many other medical diagnoses with specific nutritional requirements. They are able to work with individuals to find solutions for specific conditions and palates.
Dietitians find plenty of work outside of health care. More corporations have in-house dietitians as part of corporate wellness programs. United Supermarkets employs a dietitian to provide better nutritional information to customers. Some school districts hire dietitians to plan menus. Texas Tech Hospitality Services and The Ranch at Dove Tree, a treatment facility for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, employ dietitians.
"Dietitians are really expanding what they go and do," Fillipp said.
The dietetics program at Texas Tech is accredited through the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics, which requires certain classes be taught in all programs. Texas Tech's curriculum adds to those requirements, leaving room for dietetics majors to take one elective in four years.
It's a challenging four years, Fillipp and Childress said. In the first two years the students load up on chemistry, biology, food science and restaurant, hotel and institution management courses. They need to have a 3.0 GPA in those courses to apply for the dietetics program, and they can't take any upper level dietetics courses without being admitted to the program.
That sometimes means students who aren't making the necessary grades get steered into a new program. They do that, Fillipp said, because to get an internship students need at least a 3.0 GPA. They don't want students to graduate but not be able to get an internship, because they can't become dietitians without that.
"You don't have much time to make mistakes, honestly," Fillipp said.
And the students learn this pretty quickly.
"I hear the older ones telling the younger ones, 'You better be good at science. You better be able to do well in all your chemistries,'" Childress said. "That's another thing that's alleviated by having a prerequisite GPA, the fact that your grades count from day one."
Professors want to make sure the students are prepared not only for their internships but also to pass the licensing test that will allow them to become registered dietitians. It's not easy, Fillipp said, nor is the 1,200-hour internship. In fact, just applying for the internships is one of the more difficult tasks for dietetics students; they have to research programs, meet with professors and find ways to set themselves apart from the other internship candidates with impressive GPAs and work experience.
"They've got to have a strong academic ability to get through the gauntlet," Fillipp said.
Dietetics students match with their internships similar to the way medical students match with their residency programs. A graduating senior ranks the programs he or she has applied to in order of preference. All of the program directors then rank the students who have applied in the order they want to select the students. A computer matches students to programs based on those rankings.
In 2015 Texas Tech had a 97 percent match rate, above the university's average match rate of 86 percent and well above the national average rate of 50 percent.
Most internships last a year, although some students work on a master's degree at the same time and take two years. It's a chance for students to shadow professionals, be part of the conversations on health care, learn what clinicians do and experience the different facets of dietetics before they look for work.
"It's basically like you get to try everything in your field before you make a decision about what you want to do," Childress said. "It's really a great experience."
Texas Tech has 18 openings spread across three sites – Lubbock, Amarillo and Midland/Odessa – and usually a fair number of Texas Tech students stay to complete an internship. However, they want the students to find the internship that will be the best match for them. Last year students were matched with Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas and the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, both prestigious programs.
Fillipp, who heads the committee that ranks the applicants, said they want diversity in their interns, so Texas Tech students don't get any special consideration. Although most of the universities they pull from have the same accreditation and thus have similar curricula, each has different strengths, so they hope to match with a variety of students.
As the internship programs and more students come from different universities, that helps raise Texas Tech's profile as well. Fillipp said students from throughout the state will come to Texas Tech, enjoy their internships and contact their undergraduate advisers about their experience, which leads those advisers to encourage future students to apply. It also helps that in 2014, the dietetics program had a 100 percent pass rate on the registered dietitian exam, which was the top pass rate in the nation.
"We've worked hard to give them a great experience without too many tears," Fillipp said. "It's work, but they end up having a good experience overall."