“You have brains in your head
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose.”
             — Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”

Studying dietetics at university doesn’t mean you’re committing to a narrow career path. On the contrary: a solid, science-driven base in dietetics can take you many places, professionally.

Positive proof of this is the resume of former Director General, Queensland Government in the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, Helen Ringrose.

Helen joined our executive leadership panel at Dietitian Day 2016 in Sydney, sharing her insights on parlaying her dietetics background into an illustrious career featuring nearly three decades of senior leadership positions in Government, in the departments of Health, Education, Agriculture and Finance. She also has extensive experience in the management of major information technology projects in the public sector.

Now retired, Helen reflected back on her career learnings for us when we spoke recently in the weeks leading up to her Dietitian Day appearance. Sit back, listen and learn from a noted leader who built the career of her choice.

Dietitian Connection: What motivated you to seize opportunities beyond dietetics?

Helen Ringrose: As chief dietitian of a major metropolitan Melbourne hospital back in the 70s, I became very active in the Allied Health Professionals association. It became very obvious to me at the time that we, as a large working group within hospitals, had very little say in the provision of services in the hospital.

I wanted to have far greater input into health policy, as it affected patients and service provision provided by those allied health professionals. So when I saw how hospitals operated, and how little input we really had, I felt I needed to develop other skills that would allow us a greater say.

DC: What were the biggest learnings you had throughout your career?

HR: Seize any and every opportunity that presents itself to you. I was fortunate enough at the time I was working in dietetics to be part of the community health services program introduced by the Whitlam government, and was able to establish and set up a community nutrition program at the hospital. That was quite new and quite radical at the time – stepping outside the clinical model.

It is important that we learn to tackle tasks that stretch us. Don’t think you can’t achieve things – taking things step by step, a lot can be achieved.

It’s also very important to stay abreast of current trends in your professional field, and work with management to try and adopt these trends in your establishment or institution.

A lot of times, dietitians will say, “We can’t convince management to get the funding for extra resources or staff.” Sometimes dietitians have to look outside the square and say, ”Where else can we get funding, or recognition for what we’re doing, to try and implement some of the programs that we want to achieve?” There are different ways of doing that.

DC: How do you continue to grow and develop in this ever-changing innovative environment of today’s world?

HR: Stay abreast of current issues, and stay attuned to innovation in your particular field. Participate in events like Dietitian Day, and professional conferences and meetings with your contemporaries – not only in Australia, but also overseas.

We need to understand and adopt the use of information technology to its maximum effect to improve everyday client patient service delivery, because the world is changing so quickly that if we don’t do this, we are going to be left behind as a profession.

A very good example of that is the CSIRO Total Wellbeing online diet, which gives support to people wishing to pursue a healthier lifestyle. It’s an excellent program that adopts leading-edge practices through information technology innovation to reach a far greater population than just one-on-one dietitians seeing patients could. This is an example of the impact the profession can have.

DC: How can dietitians stand out from the crowd and be leaders?

HR: Younger dietitians, in particular, must participate in professional forums, whether they’re dietitians’ conferences, monthly meetings, seminars, or professional talks.

While a large proportion of dietitians work in a hospital setting, in a one-on-one basis or a more general basis, for the profession to stand out, they have to become much more vocal through the use of media and public speaking, to have their messages heard. This is something I have supported for many years in many fields – not just nutrition and dietetics.

To do that, dietitians have to have confidence in public speaking – which means they might need training, and they need to understand how the media works. From time to time, our professional association runs seminars on how to use the media effectively. That’s the only way you’re going to get your message across and stand out as a profession that has authenticity, that the public can trust, rather than celebrities who get a lot of airtime, but are not trained.

I gained my confidence in public speaking through professional development. Also, at the hospital we gained publicity through some of the innovative work we were doing on community nutrition services, and I got to know people who ran radio shows and wrote for newspapers, and they would come to me if they wanted an opinion.

There are some very good dietitians who speak to the media on a regular basis, and they do a fantastic job in getting messages across to the general public.

DC: Do you think the general public has become more or less knowledgeable of nutrition in recent years?

HR: Thirty years on, I think that the knowledge of the general public is about the same as it was then. The problem is that the public are always looking for quick-fix answers. I don’t hold our profession totally responsible; the government should shoulder a much larger responsibility for taking a leading role in combating misinformation.

There are some fantastic programs, such as Stephanie Alexander’s work with garden programs in schools, which are teaching kids the value of good nutrition and good foods. But the amount of money that the government puts into preventative health – and particularly good nutrition programs – is abysmal. Until such time as the government is prepared to spend more money, dietitians are always going to be combating misinformation.

A good example of how we have been effective is the controversy last year over the Peter Evans diet. When it got the publicity it did, it was fantastic to see both the DAA and the AMA coming together in refuting the claims made – so much so, that the publication of Peter Evans’ book was withdrawn.  But it’s that kind of exposure that those celebrities get that our professional association has to be prepared to stand up to.

It is encouraging to see that our profession is doing that, but we have to do a lot more of voicing our opinions when we see something without a scientific basis whatsoever.

The problem has always been, if you ask the public if they know the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist, invariability they will say no. You have to explain the training a dietitian needs, versus any self-proclaimed nutritionist. The public are very gullible.

DC: Did you have a mentor? If so, how did that person help influence who you are today?

HR: I have many, many mentors.

Today it’s popular to pay for a professional mentor. I don’t really think that’s necessary. You choose mentors subconsciously, or they choose you. Mentors are usually people you’ve worked with, or you know from a professional setting. They are people to whom you go to for encouragement and advice, who take an interest in what you’re doing, and encourage you to take challenges and aspire to be the best in what you want to achieve.

During your career, you’ll have many mentors, depending on the area you’re working in. Having a mentor very much depends on trust between two people, and a high degree of confidentiality.

Mentors are important, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to take on a lot of the roles I did without mentor support, but I didn’t go deliberately looking for a mentor – it just happened and evolved.

DC: What’s the most critical challenge facing the world of dietetics at the moment? What would your solution be?

HR: The most critical issue is combating misinformation in the media on matters of nutrition and diet – without a doubt. Dietitians really need to gain that public voice, and that requires them to step out of the clinical world from time to time to take up arguments that they find false or misleading.

Dietitians have two roles: primary health care of patients’ nutritional needs, and educating the public with good, sound nutritional advice. There are many forums through which dietitians can undertake that second role, with support and perhaps some training in speaking or writing with confidence. Dietitians will then be able to extend their opportunities in clinical and community settings.