When Mr Tan Lee Boo joined Singapore General Hospital (SGH), an institution under SingHealth Group, as a dietitian over 14 years ago, he was the only male in a predominantly female domain. However, that did not deter him.

“The advantage I have is that I enjoy cooking and am able to apply nutrition knowledge and disease management skills for my patients’ and my own health,” says Mr Tan, principal dietitian at SGH. It was this interest that has kept him going all these years.

Mr Tan works primarily with critically ill patients from the intensive care units and patients who require intravenous nutrition due to the malfunction of their digestive tract. His responsibility is to devise a personalised nutrition care plan to ensure that the patients receive appropriate nutrition during the illness right up to the recovery phase.

According to Mr Tan, there is a general misconception that all dietitians do is count calories and help overweight and obese patients lose weight.

He says: “Our role is more encompassing than that. We guide patients with different medical conditions in their dietary needs, especially when they are recuperating from an illness, and we need to know what diet will help them regain their health.”

He cites an example of a patient who had undergone stomach surgery and had portions of his bowel removed. He may need bowel rest with the support of intravenous nutrition initially. In time, he may gradually be introduced to oral nutrition.

Mr Tan has had opportunities to further his interest in dietetics. He attended an eight-week clinical attachment in critical care nutrition in the United States through the Health Manpower Development Programme (HMDP) in 2004, which gave him the chance to see and understand how dietitians in the US worked and what different patient outcomes were like.

“I realised that what we are practising locally is on par with what they are doing in the US,” he says. “I was able to network with others in the profession and we exchange ideas and even do joint research studies.” 

In 2007, Mr Tan was awarded a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in clinical nutrition.

Since his return after completing his studies, he has been responsible for driving dietetics research among the dietitians at SGH.

He supervises junior dietitians in their research projects, from research question formulation to data collection and presentation at scientific congresses. He also encourages dietitians to actively participate in systematic reviews and meta-analyses.

  He says: “Working in SGH has enriched my experience not only from the perspective of my clinical and research duties but also through my teaching role.

“We give lectures to medical students from Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, and deliver in-service talks to doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals. The senior dietitians also conduct various nutrition workshops through the Postgraduate Allied Health Institute.”

To aspiring dietitians, Mr Tan has this advice. “If you have the passion to help people improve their health through better nutrition knowledge, and you enjoy working with people, then dietetics is right for you — regardless of gender. The main thing to keep in mind is that with optimal nutrition care, a dietitian is able to help patients get on the road to recovery.”