26 April 2023 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Supplied
Dr Lucia Meko wants to prove that patients, when armed with correct and relevant information, can take ownership of their health and well-being.

The University of the Free State (UFS) is highlighting the achievements of its women inventors, creators, and entrepreneurs in celebration of World Intellectual Property (IP) Day on 26 April, under the theme ‘Women and IP: Accelerating innovation and creativity’.

One of these women is Dr Lucia Meko, Head of the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at the UFS, who is developing a nutrition education toolkit to help bridge the language barrier between dietitians and their clients in South Africa. 

According to Dr Meko, the website which forms part of the toolkit will be the first web-based resource focused on the South African population that is available to dietitians, enabling them to locally contextualise their counselling. The website will include descriptions of common foods unique to the South African population, such as nutritional information on traditional indigenous foods like green leafy vegetables.

Dr Meko says she is working with the university’s Industry Mentorship programme to explore ways of commercialising the toolkit, which will be available to dietitians during consultations as a way of improving communication with patients.

The toolkit consists of nutrition education material in four languages, namely isiXhosa, Sesotho, English, and Afrikaans, and covers topics such as pathophysiology, nutritional guidelines on general healthy eating habits, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, renal failure, and hypercholesterolemia. Additionally, the toolkit includes videos that dietitians can use to learn nutrition and dietetics terms in Sesotho, isiXhosa, English, and Afrikaans at their own pace. 

Dietitians will be able to download and print resources from the website for patients in their preferred language, or use digital flip charts and patient education videos, which will also be available in the patients’ languages. 

Value of dietary counselling sessions 

Although she always enjoyed the community work aspect of her work as a dietician, Dr Meko realised the value of dietary counselling sessions in under-resourced communities nine years ago, when she identified this as the area that she wanted to focus her work on.

She was motivated by what the project could achieve and was spurred on by the need to address health inequalities. “Proper nutrition is known to be associated with improved health outcomes; however, this information is not available to community members living in low-resourced communities,” says Dr Meko, who wants to prove that patients, when armed with correct and relevant information, can take ownership of their health and well-being.  

“I realised that providing quality, evidence-based counselling could empower patients to make informed decisions about their health,” she says.

Dr Meko started developing the toolkit after consulting dietitians working in public hospitals and speaking to patients living with non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. “During the development process, patients were presented with different examples of information leaflets and pamphlets. Interestingly, when they were asked to choose the amount of information to be on the resources, they chose the more detailed pamphlets.” 

She continues, “It was this one particular patient who implemented what we told her during our community-based education activities with students, who inspired me. After receiving counselling, the patient adjusted her diet. She reported to the students and me that her blood pressure had decreased at her last check-up, solely by implementing our advice.”

Bridging the language barrier

Sesotho is the most widely spoken language in the Free State, but many of the dietitians working in the province are not Sesotho speakers, which means some of the information relayed to patients by dietitians has often been lost in translation. This has contributed to ongoing struggles to expand education about dietetics in under-resourced communities.

“My work, therefore, is aimed at bridging the language barrier,” Dr Meko says.

While the project is a work in progress, she believes in dreaming big and starting small. But most importantly, to start – to take action towards achieving one’s goal. 

“Many of us have dreams and aspirations. Sometimes the dreams seem unreasonable and unachievable. But at the end of it all, we have a choice to make… to stay true to our dream, or live the rest of our lives wondering ‘What if I chose to pursue my dream…’!”

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