Interprofessional from the start: Since the beginning of his teaching career, Dr. José Rojas has emphasized a team approach

Feb 23, 2018, 16:14 PM by Stephen Hadley
Dr. Rojas
Throughout his teaching career, Dr. José D. Rojas has stressed the importance of interprofessional education in better preparing his respiratory care students for careers in the medical field.

Rojas, associate professor and chair of UTMB’s Department of Respiratory Care in the School of Health Professions, saw firsthand the value of students working in interdisciplinary teams when he taught at Midland College in the late 1980s.

“At the time, we didn’t think our approach was groundbreaking. We were just looking for a better way to teach students,” Rojas remembered. “We had a lab that connected the nursing students with the respiratory care students and we understood that the best way for them to learn was by working together, by mirroring the approach they would take in the workplace.”

Over the years, as Rojas’ career took him across the country as a respiratory therapist and finally to a position teaching physiology to medical students on the Caribbean island of Dominica, he continued to promote interprofessional education as the cornerstone of preparing the health care workforce of the future.

But it was a personal tragedy that brought him back to Texas to teach respiratory care at UTMB—and to convey a deep understanding of why interprofessional education and practice are so vital.

His youngest son, Josh, who was serving as a crew chief on an A-10 Warthog for the U.S. Air Force in Fairbanks, Alaska, died in 2004 after he was misdiagnosed with pneumonia. His death, just shy of his 21st birthday, was caused by a pulmonary embolism.

“Thinking about and confronting what the experience had been like with Josh during his hospitalization made me realize I needed to get back to teaching respiratory care,” Rojas said. “I knew I could make a difference by looking at the dynamic of people who worked with Josh, examining the team effort and how I could contribute to that.”

Rojas said at UTMB his focus is on helping students learn to work in teams to provide the best care possible to patients.

“Interprofessional education is vitally important,” he said. “Employers are looking for graduates who have the soft skills—the people skills—to be able to interact with one another and be a part of team.

“If all we do is teach them a skillset or share our knowledge about a particular disease, I think we’re missing out on an opportunity. It’s been shown again and again that the outcomes for patients are better when we approach care in an interdisciplinary way.”

Dr. José Rojas works with students during a simulation.Rojas said UTMB’s new Health Education Center, which is under construction on the Galveston Campus and set to open in 2019, is going to improve the institution’s approach to providing an education that is focused on team skills.

“Having the HEC is going to facilitate grouping learners with similar skillsets so they can work together,” he said. “We can actually work with a nursing student to simulate the role of a nurse. The same goes for a therapist or a medical student or a physician assistant. I really believe that being able to simulate these interprofessional teams is going to be a great opportunity for us to enhance the education of all of our students.”

The HEC, which represents the first significant addition to UTMB’s educational infrastructure in four decades, will feature three core areas of focus: simulation, where students can learn in high-realism, low-risk settings; interdisciplinary training, where students from our four schools will work and learn together; and active learning, where students will tackle challenging cases in small group settings.

The next challenge, Rojas said, will be to connect interprofessional education initiatives with clinicians who are already in practice at UTMB.

“We’re all working to bridge the gap that exists between the academic environment and the real-world practicing environment and we will find ways to make that happen,” Rojas said. “The HEC is the first step, a place where we can bring everyone together to learn, but we are continuing to find ways to improve what we offer our students, our communities and, ultimately, patients.”