Two RTs prove that it is possible to create their own success by starting Western States Clinical Research.

By John A. Wolfe, RRT

Are you troubled that your morale is low? Do you feel that you are not getting enough respect? Are you concerned by the lack of opportunities in the respiratory care profession? Maybe you have been wondering, “What has the respiratory care profession done for me lately?”

John A. Wolfe, RRT

John A. Wolfe, RRT

I have often heard these questions asked by my peers and no doubt you have too. But perhaps we are asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong places for answers. To mangle the words of John F. Kennedy, perhaps you should ask not what respiratory care can do for you, instead, ask what you can do for respiratory care.

Did you ever consider where morale comes from? If you think it comes from your department head or medical director, then you have surrendered responsibility for your own happiness and professional success to someone else. You end up with the morale you deserve.

I often hear that a strong, respected respiratory care department is the result of a strong medical director who respects RCPs and makes things happen for them. But respect (spelled R-E-S-P-E-C-T) is not just a great Motown hit and it is not something that can be requisitioned by a department head. Respect is like a bank account. We make deposits and withdrawals with every action we take, or fail to take, with every minute of each day. Our respect, or the lack of it, is a result of the collective actions of every RCP.

Many RCPs have expressed regret that doors did not magically fly open when their state achieved licensure. They have once again made the critical mistake of expecting someone else to “make it happen” for them. But there is a simple answer and the beauty of it is that each of us has complete control of the outcome.

The answer is to create our own opportunities and it is not that difficult to do. When RCPs look to expand their horizons, they will typically find opportunities throughout the health care system including specializing in neonatal intensive care units, pulmonary function laboratories, transport teams, home care, and foreign service positions. Opportunities outside “the system” include writing feature articles, volunteering for various camps, and developing community asthma education or smoking cessation programs. The list is limited only by our imaginations. All we have to do, as the popular Nike ad says, is “Just do it.”

A Success Story

There are countless stories about RCPs who took complete responsibility for their own destiny and I have never heard one of them regret the decision to try to make something happen. I would like to share a success story that shows how a simple vision and a strong commitment can lead to the ultimate reward: professional job satisfaction.

Dara Stillman, CRTT, and Sheri Casey, CRTT, forged their own road to a new horizon by starting Western States Clinical Research, a successful pharmaceutical research business in Denver, which has recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. I had the opportunity to talk with Stillman about how she developed and nurtured a dream into reality.

About 10 years ago, Stillman was working a 10-hour shift, 3 days a week at a Denver hospital when she was presented with an opportunity to join a pulmonology group doing clinical research.

She made the transition with a bit of trepidation. “At first, I thought what they were doing was very interesting, but I was used to the regimentation of the hospital. Clinical research wasn’t as structured and there was a lot of variety. You had to look around, prioritize, and decide which was the most important thing to do next. It wasn’t always very obvious,” Stillman says.

She made the leap and found the world of clinical pharmaceutical studies to be very satisfying work. “We were doing ipratropium bromide studies for people with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and tracking how the drug worked for them. That actually turned out to be an excellent medication for people with COPD,” she says.

Another rewarding study was with the nicotine patch. “We did some of the first studies on two different nicotine patches by two study sponsors and recruited people who wanted to quit smoking and wanted to try this out; these things were brand-new. We offered counseling groups as part of the study. We would evaluate each person every week and then they would go to their group.” She continues, “It was interesting. Some [of the study participants] were nurses from the hospital and I ran into a few of them years later and found that they had remained nonsmokers. They were exuberant about the whole experience. That’s a good feeling because here I was doing research and actually made a very positive long-term difference in somebody’s life.”

Undergoing Change

Eventually, however, things began to unravel. There were numerous changes at the pulmonary office where she conducted the studies. The physicians who had been the principal investigators had left, and it became apparent that for autonomy, job security, and morale, it would be necessary to start their own clinical research practice.

“We told the new doctors that things really had to change,” Stillman explained. “We also told them that we had decided to form our own study coordinating group and no longer wanted to be employees. We wanted to be partners with them in doing research and felt that we knew all the ins and outs of research and they really did not.”

The physicians were not at all receptive to the idea. At that point, many people would have been polishing off their resumes and looking for other work, but Stillman had bigger plans. She enjoyed doing clinical research, knew she could do quality work, and thought she could find a way to make it happen.

Stillman and her partner, also an RCP, put the word out that they were forming their own study coordinating group. Almost immediately, one of the pharmaceutical companies called back and said, “We know the kind of work you do and we realize that a lot of the outcome of how well a clinical trial is carried out rests on the shoulders of the coordinators. So if you find a doctor, these studies are yours.”

They had one small problem—they needed a physician to oversee their work and act as a principal investigator. Eventually, they found an internal medicine specialist who could see the benefits of the research and look at the relationship from a completely different point of view. He could participate in the study, be competently paid for his participation, but did not have to be involved in payroll, recruiting, and hiring and firing of staff members.

The process was rough at first because they had a substantial lag between the time they started the studies and when they were remunerated for their work. “We were on a shoestring. We used savings and were charging things on credit cards,” Stillman says. “I think we each worked about 3 days a week and made about 11 cents an hour.”

Problem Solving

They solved their problems one at a time and took responsibility for the outcome. Ultimately, Western States Clinical Research grew into a respected and successful pharmaceutical research business with a gross income of nearly $1 million per year. But, she cautions, “A lot of it goes right back to the doctors, overhead, etc. We operate at a level of being busy that’s comfortable to us.”

Stillman continues, “Neither Sheri nor I are workaholics. We’re very comfortable [with] where we are. Plus, we feel that it’s really important to maintain some control over all aspects. If we became really busy and had to hire a larger staff, it would be harder to control the quality of the work we do.”

Stillman knows her work is respected and told me what she likes best about her career. “Being in charge of our own destiny and of our own work is a nice change of pace from working in the hospital with people who are often desperately sick. We like being able to pick and choose our own projects. And it’s rewarding to work on some studies where you see that the product is going to benefit people. When it’s really something innovative, new, and different, you see incredible results,” she says. Most important, issues of morale, respect, and professional opportunities are not a problem for her. She takes responsibility for that herself.

We all wish that the system and our department heads would offer us more money, greater autonomy, and the respect we deserve. And in fact, they will. But it is entirely in our own hands to make it happen… so what are you waiting for? RT

John A. Wolfe, RRT, is a contributing writer for RT Magazine.