When respiratory therapy students walk into the hospital for the first time they have their sights set on being bedside practitioners. They have every reason to look higher too. RTs with the right experience and background have great opportunity to move into the upper ranks of health, and Ken Alexander, MS, RRT, is a great example.
He explains how he ended up as vice president of the Louisiana Hospital Association.
When and why did you decide to become a respiratory therapist and where did you get your RT degree?
In all honesty, I “fell” into RT after getting out of the Army in 1979. Licensure was not required in Louisiana back then and I had some clinical experience as a hospital-based Army medic giving IPPBs, nebs, chest PT, and oxygen therapy, and I wanted a job doing meaningful patient care. But once I got into the profession, I was sold. After several years working as an “on the job training” OJT therapist I went to Northwestern University Medical School’s advanced, accelerated RRT diploma program and was taught by the likes of Dr. Bob Kacmarek, Dr. Barry Shapiro, and Dr. Ron Harrison.
How long did you work as a traditional RT and what did you most like about that role?
I worked clinically from 1979 to 1995, as a staff therapist, supervisor, department director, and administrative director. I loved everything about my clinical experience — the patient and family interactions, the challenge and uncertainty that is inherent in the ER and ICU, and how respiratory therapists were constantly adapting and innovating to meet unique patient needs in all care settings.
And I thoroughly enjoyed my consultative relationship with physicians and others in determining the best diagnostic and treatment plans for our patients. I will say that I also worked clinically while a hospital CEO following Hurricane Katrina, where I did routine therapy and whatever else was needed clinically to help during that challenging time.
How did you first segue out of traditional respiratory care and into the upper level management positions you held before joining the Louisiana Hospital Association?
I had advanced to an administrative director role, overseeing multiple departments, including two ICU units, and felt ready to advance to senior level administration. My CEO encouraged and mentored me, so I went to graduate school, obtained my masters in administration, and earned a promotion to chief operating officer in a separate, company-owned hospital in January 1995.
Why did you decide to make these moves and how did each of them help you land your current job with the Louisiana Hospital Association?
As my responsibility set increased during my career, I enjoyed seeing health care from a broader, more global perspective, and how all the puzzle pieces fit together. RTs are puzzle solvers by nature, so it was a logical fit and transition for me.
I progressed from a COO to a CEO, and was privileged to serve several organizations of various types and sizes from 1995 to 2008, when I joined the Louisiana Hospital Association (LHA). With each promotion and/or hospital move, I learned more and gained more insight as to how the business side and clinical side of health care can actually complement, and not contradict, each other. That balance of perspective and related experience helped me to eventually “land” at LHA.
What does your current job as vice president of member services and quality improvement entail?
I was recruited by LHA to lead and oversee development of an area of member support focusing on quality improvement. My role has grown and morphed since then to also include leading and overseeing our emergency preparedness and education departments, along with quality. I also support our rural and post-acute hospital members in areas of policy and licensure/accreditation, and serve as a registered lobbyist for the association. I also spend a lot of my time speaking to groups about leadership and the culture of health care.
How is your background in RT helping you in the position?
As I mentioned, RTs are great puzzle solvers and innovators. I spend a lot of time working with hospitals, from staff level to the c-suite and board level, helping them problem solve, so my background as an RT is extremely helpful. Also, by maintaining my license and staying relevant through the AARC and others, I can relate to them both clinically and administratively, which gives me credibility with clinical staff and medical staff, as well as senior leadership.
What are the biggest challenges and the biggest rewards you’ve faced on the job so far?
This is hard to answer in a short interview. I could spend days on this one! One of the biggest challenges I deal with is helping organizations understand and manage through the reform and regulatory environment, where there are seemingly endless demands on their time and energy. And I’m most rewarded when I’m able to help RTs and others better understand how everyone has “skin in the game,” and how everyone can make a difference in the health of their patients, their organizations, and their professions, regardless of their role.
What advice do you have for other RTs who might see themselves going into an upper level management position such as the one you now have at the Louisiana Hospital Association?
The best advice I can give is more on the philosophical side. In addition to the usual pragmatic things such as graduate degrees, seek more responsibility, etc., etc., respiratory therapists need to fully appreciate, understand, and promote their value. RTs are the chameleons of health care — part nurse, part mechanic, part lab tech, part plumber, part physical therapist, part case manager, part finance professional, and the list goes on and on. Capitalize on those strengths and think boldly. And I always preach the “Big 3” of leadership — be Positive, Proactive, and Self Directed in your behavior and attitude.
You’ve maintained your AARC membership throughout all your moves into upper level management. How do you think your AARC membership still enhances your career?
The AARC keeps me informed on a variety of fronts, clinically and administratively, and it keeps me plugged into the “heart and lungs” of the hospital, which is very important for my current role. But most importantly, the AARC helps me celebrate my roots as an RT, and I’ll ever be indebted to my chosen clinical profession and its professional champion.