Mizzou alumni respond to COVID-19: Robert Shaw

Robert Shaw

Mizzou Respiratory Therapy alumni respond to COVID-19: Robert Shaw

When Mizzou respiratory therapy graduates pursue their licenses to practice this May, they will take an examination whose design and content were guided by one of our own alumni.

Robert Shaw, BHS ’82, M Ed ’84, PhD ’94, is the Vice President of Examinations at the National Board for Respiratory Care. Over the course of his career, he has been a student, a respiratory therapist, a professor and a psychometrician. Psychometricians who specialize in occupational credentialing, like Shaw, guide development of examinations to determine whether someone has sufficient knowledge to competently perform in a certain field.

Developing these examinations and especially establishing the pass/fail score is a heavy responsibility, and Shaw knows the stakes are high. These examinations set the bar that ensures clinicians are prepared to handle crises like COVID-19, and he takes this responsibility very seriously.

“Respiratory therapists need to know the medical evidence to manage patients,” he says. “We don’t do interventions because we ‘feel’ they will work. We do things because there’s scientific evidence that it works.”

Below are excerpts from an interview with Dr. Shaw. Responses have been edited for clarity.

Read our other Perspectives in Respiratory Therapy stories.
A child sits on the shoulders of a man who is holding the child's ankles
A Columbia native and three-time Mizzou graduate, Robert Shaw now designs credentialing examinations that are used nationwide. Above, Dr. Shaw is pictured with his 2-year-old grandson, Hank.

How has COVID-19 impacted the National Board for Respiratory Care?

All the NBRC’s examination administrations were forced to stop for a few weeks because of the pandemic. Seventy sites were able to reopen at half capacity on April 15, but that did not cover what 300 sites had been covering nationwide. The NBRC has been working to enable a remotely-proctored exam so graduates can take examinations in their homes. We expect that to start in May; we also expect some of the 300 sites to reopen at half capacity in May.

What made respiratory therapy interesting to you?

One of the attractive points about respiratory therapy was that it’s quite variable. No day is like the one before. When I was at the University Hospital, there were 10 different ICUs. Respiratory therapists could be assigned to different ICUs, so you get variety in your physical workspace as well as the kind of patients you are treating.

What else do respiratory therapists do?

You will find respiratory therapists at the cutting edges of research. Yes, they have clinical roles, but they are also coordinating and planning research studies, and helping determine what research questions the studies should examine. Respiratory therapy is not just about caring for extremely sick individuals, it’s also about creating the clinical research on which the future practice will be based.

What changes have you seen in the field of respiratory therapy since you got your start in 1980?

There has been a constant stream of new technology. For example, shortly after I graduated, a device called a pulse oximeter was introduced to the market. It lets you wrap a sensor around the patient’s finger to get their level of oxygen. Before that, the only way to definitively know the level of oxygen was to draw blood. Back then, our department had two pulse oximeters. These days, oximeters are at every bedside in an intensive care unit or emergency department. You can even buy them over-the-counter.

What advice do you have for graduating students?

We may be going into a recession, but respiratory therapists are still needed. Not only do all respiratory therapists have jobs if they want them, but hospitals and states are pulling retirees into the workforce to respond to COVID-19. Even when this pandemic is over, there will still be a need because people don’t choose when they need healthcare.