The primary role of a clinical dietician is to design nutrition programs to improve or maintain the health of patients. These programs may be short-term, such as to ensure that proper nutrition is delivered to an accident victim until full healing has occurred. Or they may be long-term for patients with diabetes, kidney disease or old age conditions that affect proper nutrition. The programs designed may be preventive, for heart disease or obesity, or therapeutic to help a patient with heart disease maintain a baseline health and nutrition state.
Clinical dieticians most often work in hospitals, clinics, or public and community health settings. They are also employed in long-term care facilities, veterans’ hospitals, universities and public schools, private practice, or HMOs.
A clinical dietician is often at the center of the interactions between doctor, patient, and the staff of the facility in which care is administered. A delicate balance sometimes exists between what a doctor recommends and a patient’s ability to implement the nutrition program. Factors such as a patient’s income, level of education, psychological and physical state, living conditions, family assistance, and ability to follow the program must be considered. Sometimes the clinical dietician must provide a great deal of patient contact, counseling, and education to achieve that balance.
Nutrition is a science, and the education will be science-based. Course work can include anatomy, physiology, chemistry, biochemistry, basic math, statistics, epidemiology, psychology, and microbiology. Because nutrition serves many needs and deals with many cultures and food types, the courses specifically related to nutrition are varied and might include micro- and macronutrients, sensory analysis, oncology, wellness, global studies, or community nutrition, to name just a few.
Every state has at least one college offering a program in nutrition sciences. Most states have colleges that also offer graduate programs. No matter what college you attend or how you structure your education (i.e., a combination of junior college, distance learning and traditional on-campus studies), most programs take at least four years to earn a Bachelor of Science degree. Most require an internship, which may be completed after the undergraduate coursework is completed or is built into the four-year schedule.
Not all programs are created equal, and your education is the foundation of your career. Attending a college with an accredited nutrition program will help lay that foundation. Many states require licensure or certification to practice as a clinical dietician, and attending an accredited program will prepare you for that step.
Your choices (which school you choose and your living conditions) dramatically affect how much your education will cost. Obviously, attending Harvard or an out-of-state school will cost much more than your local university, though all are accredited programs and provide a good education. One tried and true method of keeping total costs low is to complete prerequisite courses or even the first year or two of undergraduate studies at a lower-cost institution, such as a community college. Much of this can also be accomplished online.
Every school’s website has all the information you need to make informed choices, including tuition, financial aid and all the required courses. If the website does not answer all your questions, most programs have advisors you can contact in person.
All financial aid begins with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and can be done on the FAFSA website. By visiting the website of your school of interest and the FAFSA website, in less than half an hour you can get a very good estimate of available financial aid and the total cost of attending the school of your choice.
According to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average national pay for dieticians and nutritionists is $57,440. This website has the average pay and employment statistics for state and local areas as well. Other BLS data predicts that the job outlook is very bright, with an expected 21% increase in employment of dieticians through 2022.
Not only are the job prospects for clinical dieticians very good, the general field of nutrition is expanding to include wellness programs, a wider variety of dietetic and nutrition services, and global outreach and education. The emphasis on disease prevention in the Affordable Care Act is a prime example of how nutrition’s role in our health care system is growing.