Where Can Your RT Career Take You? How About Company CEO?

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In the early days of the profession, most respiratory therapists would tell you that rising to the position of department director or program director was about as far as the field could take you.

These days, the sky is the limit. You can find therapists working in upper level positions in hospitals, taking on the dean’s role in academic institutions, carrying out major research studies, and more.

Todd Austin, BSRT, RRT, RRT-NPS, RPFT, is a prime example. Ever since he earned his BSRT in 1984, he’s been moving full steam ahead, first on the clinical side of the profession, and later on in industry.

Today he is CEO of MGC Diagnostics, a company headquartered in Saint Paul, MN, that develops, manufactures, and markets noninvasive diagnostics systems for detecting, classifying, and managing cardiorespiratory disease.

He shares his journey from bedside RT to CEO with us in this interview —

Why did you decide to become a respiratory therapist? What drew you to the field?

I started my path towards becoming a respiratory therapist in 1979 at Mount Marty College in Yankton, SD, where I was originally persuing a degree as a nurse anesthetist. However, in my sophomore year I switched to RT after I saw those students intubating patients, managing mechanical ventilators, arterial lines, and Swan Ganz catheters! I graduated in 1984 with my BS in respiratory therapy.

What led you to leave the clinical side of the profession for your first industry position at SensorMedics?

After a few years as an intensive care therapist, primarily in the NICU/PICU, I became the manager of the PFT/sleep lab at Children’s of Omaha, where, with my mentors in the pediatric pulmonology department, we explored the benefits of using infant PFT systems to establish the clinical utility of in-line mechanical ventilation pressure and flow waveforms, now standard in most all commercially available ventilators.

It was a very exciting time using SensorMedics’ 2600 infant PFT system to measure optimal PEEP, FRC, compliance, and raised volume-squeeze technique. We also worked closely with SensorMedics and their 3100a HFOV. I clearly remember the day Alex Stenzler unpacked the compression chambers and vests and we were off to the NICU to “squeeze” a 1500 gram infant. I was hooked. This was my first exposure to the benefits of a strong clinical relationship with industry. At the time, SensorMedics was full of RTs involved in critical care, diagnostics, and sleep medicine, and I wanted to be part of that team.

What requirements did you have to meet to get the job as a clinical specialist?

The requirements to transition from clinical to industry were much the same as if I were to move to another hospital — credentials, experience, and a willingness to step outside your comfort level. At the time I had my BS, RRT, RRT-NPS, and RPFT credentials.

The major differentiating requirement with many industry roles is the ability to travel extensively. As a clinical specialist, I traveled 100%, visiting customers and supporting their clinical and education needs. Most important was the support of my wife, also a respiratory therapist, who put her career on hold to be home with our three young children while I spent Monday through Friday on the road. Today, some 25 years later, we are both RPFTs, me at MGC Diagnostics and she as a senior clinical specialist at ERT Respiratory Solutions.

Over the years you worked your way up to product manager and then director of marketing. How did these positions help prepare you for your CEO position at MGC Diagnostics?

My time with SensorMedics provided numerous opportunities to work alongside some of the best leaders in the industry. These mentors taught me not only the business skills needed but instilled the importance of creating a family-like culture where employees are recognized as a company’s most valuable asset. Second to that, we went to work every day knowing that our customers placed their trust in our products to provide state-of-art care for their patients.

My time as a clinical specialist exposed me to the diversity of our profession. From small rural hospitals to the large university medical centers, respiratory therapists are always at the center of successful multidisciplinary teams. My first management position was with the customer training and technical support teams at SensorMedics. It was there that I recognized the value of customer relationships. That is why today the first pillar of MGC Diagnostics’ mission is to Provide Unmatched Service and Support.

Next, I moved into the office and became group product manager, where I helped translate customer needs into product features. The hallmark of a successful company is the ability to listen to customers and create products and services that meet their needs. Working closely with customers and engineers to deliver solutions to improve patient care is a very rewarding experience. Once again, this experience has remained at the heart of what I believe, and is why MGC Diagnostics’ remaining mission pillars are Relentlessly Make Improvements and Anticipate and Solve Unmet Needs.

In 2004 I accepted a position with ndd Medical Technologies, where I had the honor to work with a fantastic team extending their world class ultrasound spirometer to the industry’s first portable PFT system. Working with a group of entrepreneurs to realize a vision to make PFT systems available to new markets was an exciting and rewarding experience.

Following the changes at VIASYS/Cardinal Health I returned to CareFusion as director of marketing, respiratory technologies. This role taught me the fundamentals of business — budgeting, P&L responsibility, ROI of product development, cost of quality, mergers and acquisitions, and delivering positive returns to investors.

How did the CEO opportunity arise, and what did it take to be selected for this position?

In 2010 I was impacted by corporate restructuring and ventured out as a consultant, providing services for many companies, including Medical Graphics. In 2012 I accepted a position as EVP of global marketing, engineering and corporate strategy for the interim CEO at Medical Graphics. This provided the opportunity to leverage my experiences to restructure Medical Graphics into MGC Diagnostics, focusing the company on its core strengths as a cardiorespiratory diagnostics provider. At that time MGC was a publicly traded company with a supportive chairman and board of directors who challenged and mentored me to the CEO seat in 2014.

How do you believe your background as a clinical respiratory therapist has figured into all the success you have enjoyed on the industry side of the profession?

The profession of respiratory therapy has provided a lifetime of opportunity — far beyond my expectations! I have friendships around the world, not only fellow therapists and technicians, but pulmonologists, cardiologists, nurses, researchers, etc. Being an RT allowed me to comfortably navigate industry just like I did the many departments of a hospital as a therapist. My training as an RT has made me forever inquisitive. Just like working on the floors, I am able interact with all medical disciplines and develop friendships with people from all walks of life.

I grew up on a farm in rural North Dakota and love the ingenuity that respiratory therapy provides — I started my career when we “jerry-rigged” our way through the day, whether that be a PEEP water column on an old MA-1 or transporting babies with a Mark 7, a Wrights, and a stopwatch!

Would you recommend the industry side of RT to other therapists? Why or why not?

Absolutely! The opportunities for RTs are boundless. Many of my friends and colleagues work in industry, whether that be medical device manufacturers, therapeutic and pharmaceutical development, or even as successful entrepreneurs.

A good example is our company, MGC Diagnostics, where approximately 30% of our 200+ employees are clinicians, including RTs, RPFTs, and exercise physiologists working in marketing, sales, regulatory, training, and clinical support. Designing, developing, and delivering something that benefits patients is as equally rewarding as bedside care provided to patients and their families.

Lastly, one of the most rewarding parts of my job is supporting the global societies focused on cardiorespiratory science with research grants and educational opportunities. I am an active member of the ATS, ERS, CSRT, ARPT, TSANZ, and of course, the AARC.

What advice do you have for other RTs who might have aspirations to rise to the top in a company and what do you believe are the chief things they should be doing now to make that goal a reality?

Identify what you are passionate about, whether that be critical care, home care, sleep medicine, transport, education, management, or as in my case, diagnostics. Then identify a company that you hold in high regard — one that services and supports your passion, one that reflects a culture that resonates with your beliefs — and not only reach out to their human resource department, but stop by their booth at a trade show or educational event and express your interest. Never forget why you became a respiratory therapist and why you continue to love what you do. We are a unique breed, and the possibilities are endless.