The profession of Dietetics has come under the spotlight recently as a result of the Health Professionals Council of South Africa (HPCSA) inquiry into the conduct of Professor Tim Noakes.
The hearing follows a query filed with the Council by former Association of Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA) president Claire Julsing-Strydom. The query was prompted by Professor Noakes’ advice to a mother, via Twitter, on complementary feeding for her infant and was filed with the intent to gain clarity and guidance on the use of social media by health professionals.
During this process, a few commentators have questioned whether ADSA filed the query in question on behalf of its corporate sponsors and whether or not sponsor influence was a motivator for the lodging of the complaint.
ADSA emphatically refutes these allegations and we re-confirm that ADSA sponsors had no influence or input in the decision to file the query. Any suggestions to the contrary would be factually inaccurate and without merit.
We take our independence seriously
ADSA is a registered not-for-profit organisation and, as is standard practice within the NPO sector, relies in part on fundraising to sustain its operations. The specifics around both the sponsorship policy and current sponsors are readily available on the ADSA website.
We have been open and transparent about who our sponsors are and state with confidence that the independence of the association is not compromised by the support received from industry. Our standard operating policy and point of departure is to only engage partners who respect our integrity and who accept that our ethics are non-negotiable.
Clarifying the numbers
The lion’s share of income originates from membership fees, i.e., income from registered dietitians who are part of ADSA. These funds are used to develop dietitians and promote awareness about key public health issues.
Dietetics is a highly specialised field and the dietetics community in South Africa remains relatively small. The need therefore arises to supplement income with sponsorships, which contribute 31% to total funding (R33 000 per month on average), utilized to cover administrative costs and the day-to-day running of the organisation. Many of our sponsors are competitors, which also mediates unfair advantage of any one company over another.
No personal gain
Unlike counterparts abroad, ADSA executive and branch committee portfolio holders work on a completely voluntary basis and are not remunerated for services rendered. In another departure from some of its peers internationally, ADSA does not endorse any products or services. As registered health professionals, ADSA members are bound by the ethical rules of the health professions regulator, the HPCSA.
Policy and legislation
South Africa’s food-based dietary guidelines were developed by leading nutrition academics and experts, and have been adopted by the national Department of Health. The guidelines are based on current local and international science and were last updated in 2013.
ADSA members contribute to draft government legislation, along with other NPOs, industry bodies and even members of the public. ADSA’s input is based on the relevant science. It bears noting that some of our policy recommendations have not been popular with the private sector.
Empowering the public with credible science
In South Africa, dieticians are trained in the science of nutrition and have to keep up with the latest credible, evidence-based science to maintain the professional registration required by the HPCSA.
Anyone who has recently consulted a dietitian would know that, rather than promoting a brand or product, dietitians advise patients to read the labels of products and consume foods that address their particular health needs, whether it’s no added sugar, low salt, high fibre or reduced carbohydrates, etc.
Patients are empowered by dietitians to make informed food and purchasing choices by providing sufficient information and through education on nutrition. Patients can choose to shop at large retailers, to purchase the brands of their choice or support local markets. It’s their choice, and dietitians provide them with the tools to be able to make the most appropriate decision for their individual situation and health status.
Local consumers can take comfort in the fact that South Africa has advanced consumer protections in place. Food labelling regulations, for example, include guidance on permitted and/or prohibited nutrition and health claims, endorsements and the presence as well as levels of additives.
ADSA’s inquiry with the HPCSA
Social media is a rapidly growing, powerful communication medium facilitating instantaneous reach to millions of people. Our desire is for the outcome of the current HPCSA inquiry to provide guidance to health professionals on the use of social media as a professional medium. The regulator’s ruling on social media will apply to all registered health professionals in South Africa, it will not only apply to the parties in this inquiry. In the interest of public health, ADSA will continue to drive excellence in the dietetics profession.
*Maryke Gallagher is president of the Association of Dietetics in South Africa.
1. The only exception is the position of President, where a monthly honorarium of R5 000 is allocated for travel, accommodation, cell phone costs, etc.