RD Career Spotlight Interview: Lee Unangst, RD
By NUTRITIONJOBS on JULY 1, 2010
NutritionJobs: You have a very unique career and job title as a Dietitian Informaticist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD. Your impressive resume reads like that of an Information Technology Manager rather than a Registered Dietitian. How would you describe your job?
Lee Unangst: I have a couple of major responsibilities. I do everything from setting up servers and patching databases to processing diet orders and figuring out why printers aren’t printing out meal tickets! I run our patient service using CBORD Foodservice Management System. I serve as the ambassador between the kitchen, the dietetic staff and the hospital’s Information Technology (IT) department; I help facilitate communication between groups with very different backgrounds. My background in nutrition and clinical dietetics is critical in this role. This job has been a great experience!
What is Nutrition Informatics?
Informatics is the study of how humans and information technology can work together to improve processes. The point is not to replace humans with automation, but to have the two working together synergistically. As a Dietitian Informaticist I am, in short, a generalist in IT with an specialization in nutrition.
Give us a little background on your hospital.
The NIH Clinical Center is the largest hospital in the United States entirely devoted to clinical research. Our hospital offers room service meal program, and has an average patient census of around 234 inpatient beds. We also have 82 day hospital stations for which room service is available. We have 3 inpatient DTRs and 10 RDs on staff.
Help us picture your work setting.
I’m fortunate enough to have my own office in the nutrition department where I work on the computer systems. I also visit patients on the nursing units, and spend time in the kitchen and the Call Center [Diet Office] that I manage.
Your career path is clearly non-traditional. How did you happen upon it?
My dietetic internship at the University of Maryland offered a focus in Information Technology. I really took a liking to IT, and did my best to seek out IT related responsibilities in my work, which lead me to where I am today. I’m currently working on a Master’s of Science in Information Systems to continue the development of my skills.
I noticed you also have advanced level computer skills. For example, you installed a server and run the CBORD system for the nutrition department. How did you master those skills with a background as a dietitian? And how did you sell yourself during the job interview?
I did an optional rotation during my dietetic internship at the NIH with the previous Dieititian Informaticist who held the position I’m currently in. I also re-designed and programmed the District of Columbia Metropolitan Area Dietetic Association website, www.dcmada.org. I have trained others on electronic medical records and was training to be a super user. When interviewing for the job was able to speak convincingly about my IT knowledge based upon my experiences.
What makes for a successful Dietitian Informaticist?
I think strong communication skills and problem solving skills are most important. Technology skills are also important but computer skills can always be learned along the way. If you can pick up the basic functionality of a software package quickly, that’s the type of skill that’s needed most.
What will the future of dietetics look like?
I believe there will be significant growth and opportunity in nutrition informatics. I can see the field of Dietetics expanding with the growth of telemedicine as we try to reach consumers efficiently and economically. Many hospitals are just beginning to move from paper-based to electronic systems, and will need the input of dietitians both for electronic medical records, and for information systems within then nutrition department. There are several computer companies that hire Registered Dietitians, such as Computrition, ESHA Research [Food Processor] and CBORD.
What advice do you have for others hoping to pave a new career path?
It’s crucial now to have a strong set of computer skills, whether or not you go into the field of informatics. Many employers aren’t checking Dietitians for legible handwriting anymore! Many hospitals utilize electronic medical records. If you don’t have a good background in computers, consider taking online (many of which are free) or classroom based training courses. Websites function more and more like other computer applications every day, so just spending time exploring the internet is a good way to develop your skills. You can even use online nutrient calculators as a way to get experience. I am currently taking the 10 x 10 course offered by the America Medical Informatics Association and OHSU in conjunction with the ADA. This is a great course for those looking to get a solid background in Biomedical Informatics.