Captain (CAPT) Christian B. Rathke’s nontraditional PA experience has positively impacted the PA profession and has influenced others on how to integrate clinical medicine, science, and executive leadership. He has served the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) since December of 2011 as a United States Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps Officer after a total of eight years of enlistment and commissioning in the U.S. Navy.
CAPT Rathke’s first exposure to medicine was as a Navy Hospital Corpsman resulting in multiple training and combat tours with the Marine Corps. When he returned from Gulf War duty in 1992, he was introduced to the PA profession by a Navy Chief. He was honorably discharged from the Navy and then earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, VA, 1998, a Master of Medical Science with a concentration in Physician Assistant Studies from Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, CT, 2000, and a Doctor of Medical Science from the University of Lynchburg 2021 focused on administrative medicine and organizational interventions to achieve workforce health outcomes.
After leaving the Navy for the first time and completing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he began his medical career as a National Health Service Corps (NHSC) scholar and medical provider as a site director for a new community health center in Fredonia, Arizona. He was later elected president of the town’s Chamber of Commerce during his assignment. As the town’s sole full-time medical provider, he treated all aspects of health for his patients and served as the primary consultant to the mayor for the town’s public health concerns.
Soon after his small-town rural healthcare experience, he moved to Pensacola, Florida to start an executive education business for informational technology professionals while simultaneously working as a cardiology PA at Pensacola Naval Hospital. While there, he was responsible for training medical residents on cardiology procedures and chaired the hospital’s congestive heart failure board.
CAPT Rathke was then commissioned into a second tour in the U.S. Navy as an aerospace physiologist in 2006. He became a subject matter expert in addressing human performance and human physiology in extreme operational environments. For example, how the human body responds to high-altitude parachuting after being ejected from a jet fighter plane and practically applying an understanding of human limitations by combining pilot training, science, human performance, and medicine when investigating airplane mishaps.
In addition to being a PA and aerospace physiologist, CAPT Rathke is also a Dive Medical Officer and educator training over 3,000 pilots and aircrew, the Blue Angels, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration National Aerospace (NASA) astronauts in all aspects of human performance in high-risk operational environments. As a subject matter expert in flight physiology and hypoxia, he served two years as an instructor for the U.S. Navy Flight Surgeon program and a collaborative researcher and instructor for the U.S. Army Air Warrior program.
Because he missed caring for people in medical practice, he commissioned in the USPHS and assigned to NOAA for medical officer ship duty. Through the USPHS, he has been trained in public health crisis management and has been deployed with the USPHS to respond to public health emergencies. As a USPHS officer, his four duty assignments have all been with NOAA. His first assignment was as the sole Medical Officer for the NOAA Ship Ronald Brown where he managed a 400-item pharmacy, medical emergencies, and all mental and physical health issues.
In an Eastern regional role, CAPT Rathke oversaw health services for nine ships and all supporting personnel. His accomplishments included developing a ship first responder refresher program, streamlining pharmacy supply procurement, and annually medically screening 1100 scientists and conducting physical exams for 300 ship crew in order to clear them to work in remote/austere environments.
CAPT Rathke then served with the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO) serving NOAA’s 12,000 employees as the Director, Office of Health Services with a portfolio of five medical programs including Aviation Medicine, Behavioral Health, Dive Medicine, Marine Medicine, and NOAA Corps Medical Affairs. For two and a half years, CAPT Rathke was also the COVID-19 response medical lead for the Department of Commerce and for NOAA. He is now the Director of Total Worker Health, a unique comprehensive systems-level organizational approach to Federal workforce support and healthy work design to achieve measurable health outcomes for the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) within NOAA.
CAPT Rathke recognized personal burnout in himself and responded by resetting workload and personal boundaries for himself as well as reevaluating life priorities. His experience affirmed his passion for workforce issues and self-care that led him to create a new behavioral health program for NOAA employees reducing the stigma of mental health and increasing access to services. In collaboration with fellow executives, he also implemented policies and protocols that enhanced efficient work systems/flow and inclusion of medical providers at targeted operational discussions that increased the organization’s ability to prioritize work, understand the impact of unbalanced work on health, and support employees in need.
CAPT Rathke has been highly decorated for his achievements. Among his awards are the Dept of Commerce Acquisition Chief Creative award (resources for COVID-19 testing), NOAA Administrator award for unique approaches to agency problems, Department of Commerce Gold Medal, NOAA Corps Meritorious Service Medal, NOAA Administrator’s Award Navy Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, and the Humanitarian Service Medal. He is a Distinguished Fellow American Academy of Physician Assistants,
Fellow Academy of Physician Assistants in Psychiatry, and Member American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE).
Acknowledgments: This biography was written by CAPT Robin Hunter-Buskey, DHSc, CPHP, CCHP, CDCES, PA-C, with the assistance of CAPT. It was submitted to the Society in November 2023. Photographs are courtesy of CAPT Rathke