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5 minutes with Dana Whitham

Toronto, March 27, 2015

By Melissa Di Costanzo

Dana Whitham, a registered dietitian
Dana Whitham, a registered dietitian, is the recipient of the University of Toronto’s Banting and Best Diabetes Centre’s 2014 Diabetes Educator of the Year Award. (Photo by Yuri Markarov)

To wrap up Nutrition Month, we’re getting to know one of our registered dietitians, Dana Whitham. Whitham has worked in the Diabetes Care Centre for the past 16 years. As a dietitian, she focuses on helping people with diabetes gain control over their blood sugars, cholesterol, blood pressure and weight. For the past year and a half, Whitham has worked as case manager. Nutrition is a cornerstone of quality diabetes care, as is teaching patients to manage their disease, which is why a dietitian is well-suited to this type of leadership role, she said.

We caught up with Whitham to learn more.

Why is it vital to have dietitians on staff and available to patients? What does the dietitian contribute to the multidisciplinary care team?
There is a role for dietitians in any area of the hospital: in ambulatory areas, dietitians are educators helping to manage and prevent disease, and co-ordinate care. We establish longstanding relationships with patients and build trust. We teach them how to maintain their quality of life within the limits of their condition. In hospital, healthy eating and adequate nutrition affect the entire care plan. Without good nutrition, patients in the hospital aren’t going to have the strength to fight their disease. Nutrition influences their muscle mass and ability to heal. The dietitian can help patients tolerate their treatment, and is an important component of a collaborative plan.

Why did you want to become a dietitian?
I was pursuing a biomedical science degree when I discovered I enjoyed nutrition. Nutrition counseling involves two things I love: teaching and science. As a dietitian, you take what you know as evidence-based medicine and translate it into practical information for patients.

What is the most important piece of advice dietitians can give patients?
That they don’t have to be perfect. So many patients are living with chronic disease; we’ve seen them come back to us for years. Dealing with a chronic disease is incredibly difficult. I’m trying to teach them lifestyle choices. That doesn’t mean they have to be perfect all the time. I want to keep them motivated. I tell them monitoring and managing their condition requires dedication; it doesn’t require perfection. We ask a lot of our patients. They need to know it’s OK to not be perfect.

Tell me about a patient interaction that you found really gratifying.
One young man moved to Toronto for university from the East Coast. He’d been living with Type 1 diabetes since he was three. As part of his treatment growing up, he had seen a number of health care professionals. During his first visit to our clinic, at the end of our conversation, he thanked me. He said: “You are the first person I’ve seen who didn’t judge my actions or the food I eat.” That was striking. That’s not who we are here at St. Michael’s. I was happy to see the impact our philosophy had on him.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.