How I Went From Bedside RT to Telemedicine

Shawn Valenta, MHA, RRTShawn Valenta, MHA, RRT

Earlier this month, the AARC Political Advocacy Contact Team (PACT) marched up Capitol Hill to educate lawmakers about telehealth legislation that would include the respiratory therapist as a covered provider. As director of telehealth at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), Shawn Valenta, MHA, RRT, is on the cutting edge of this new health care frontier, and in the following interview he explains how he went from bedside RT to telemedicine.

How long have you been a respiratory therapist and what drew you to the profession?

I became interested in respiratory therapy after my grandmother passed away from emphysema while I was in high school. She used to always say she was smoking on her “peace pipe” while taking her albuterol nebulizers. In 2001, I graduated with a bachelor of science in respiratory therapy from Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, WV.

Where did you start out in the profession and what other positions have you held?

My first job took me to South Carolina working for the Greenville Health System in their 70-bed emergency department. After a couple years, I wanted to get closer to the beach so I came to Charleston and began working in the surgical/trauma ICU at the Medical University of South Carolina. In 2005, I was promoted to my first leadership position as a nightshift supervisor, and that eventually led to an assistant manager position six years later.

What led to your interest in telemedicine and how did you break into the area?

I began to learn about telemedicine while attending graduate school at MUSC, and I loved the concept of using technology to increase patients’ access to care. Around that same time, I had the fortunate opportunity of leading performance improvement initiatives for one of the top performing RT teams in the country. The results of that work led to MUSC being one of only three RT departments in the nation that was recognized by the University Health Consortium for significant cost reduction and quality improvement. Those “wins” and my experience in successfully working with interdisciplinary teams positioned me well for the collaborative environment of telehealth, and in November 2013, I was selected as MUSC’s first director of telehealth.

What does the position entail?

In my role, I support the operations for all of MUSC’s telehealth programs that range from the ICU to the home, oversee the nearly $50 million budget of state-invested telehealth funds for South Carolina, and am responsible for the contract execution for our network of over 100 sites. In addition, I am involved in statewide strategic planning and in furthering the mission of a statewide collaborative known as the South Carolina Telehealth Alliance.

What would you say are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your telehealth position so far and how has your RT background helped you address them?

We face a lot of challenges in developing and implementing our telehealth services. One of the biggest advantages my RT background provided me was my experience working in a variety of care settings and with a diversity of clinical and non-clinical teams. Successful collaboration is a necessity in telehealth, and my RT background is helpful in understanding some of the clinical challenges faced at the bedside where telehealth may be beneficial.

What are the biggest rewards of the job?

I am very blessed to work with an amazing team, and we are all extremely passionate about what we are doing to help transform the way care is delivered in our state, making it more accessible, affordable, and efficient. When you have a child in a rural school having breathing problems and our provider 60 miles away can use an electronic stethoscope to auscultate their lungs, it’s pretty cool and rewarding to know that you’re on a team that is bringing care directly to the patient when they need it most.

Do you think telehealth is a viable career path for other RTs? If so, how can people get their foot in the door?

Absolutely! RTs have a unique view of transitions along the continuum of care and experience working with a diversity of patient populations. For me, that experience has been invaluable. Ever growingly, health systems are developing their own telehealth strategies on how to treat their patients more efficiently, and they’ll need clinical leaders, like RTs, who have a broad understanding of the current challenges of the system. Asking your own hospital’s leadership, “What is our telehealth strategy, and how can I help?” is a good place to start, and you may find an opportunity to be involved at an early stage.