Respiratory therapists play a vital role as part of an inter-professional team of healthcare specialists addressing chronic respiratory conditions, such as emphysema and asthma. They have a deep understanding of the physiology of the cardiopulmonary system and need to remain aware of possible treatments and updates in medical technology to give patients the best possible care.
This is one of the reasons why a certified respiratory therapist would need to invest their time in continuing education units. It is also mandated by most states in the US. While respiratory therapists may not be doctors, they provide invaluable service and perform similar duties in terms of diagnosing and monitoring a patient’s condition.
What is a Respiratory Therapist?
Many people wonder what a respiratory therapist is and what role they perform in the field of medical science. Respiratory therapists or RTs are certified medical professionals specializing in providing treatment for your lungs. They usually have an associate’s degree. Taking this into account, few professionals enter this field after earning their bachelor’s degree. Registered respiratory therapists have deep knowledge of mechanical ventilators and other high-tech breathing equipment.
They work closely with nurses and doctors in various medical facilities, including maternity wards, emergency rooms, therapy offices, and others. Several RTs offer at-home care to patients with chronic conditions. Respiratory therapists are basically involved in improving the outcomes for patients with emphysema, pneumonia, asthma, lung trauma, and other conditions. They can recommend exercises after assessing your breathing and monitoring your progress.
Breathing for most people is as natural and easy as blinking. With that said, there are thousands of Americans that find breathing a struggle. These may be premature babies, accident victims, stroke and heart attack patients, or patients suffering from emphysema and asthma. A respiratory therapist usually plays a key role on the healthcare team when caring for such patients.
These healthcare professionals assess, monitor, and treat patients with cardio-respiratory and respiratory disorders. They offer invaluable service to patients in operating rooms, intensive care units, neonatal units, coronary care units, general wards, and emergency departments. Respiratory therapists have a role in sleep labs, home care, family health teams, and the general community too.
They treat patients from all facets of life and ages. They care for everyone right from infants and children to geriatric patients. These are a few major types of respiratory therapies. Respiratory therapists can choose to specialize in one or more of these:
Emergency Respiratory Therapy
This type of respiratory therapy is usually required in hospitals. Respiratory therapists provide assistance in emergency room cases to help patients recover from lung failure or heart surgery. They may assist doctors in treating pneumonia or performing complex surgeries. Ventilators are a major part of emergency respiratory therapy. RTs are responsible for initiating and managing life support for those that require it.
Adult Respiratory Therapy
Adult respiratory therapy occurs in a nursing home, hospital, outpatient office, or home setting. The respiratory therapist may be required for assisting with routine care for chronic diseases, like cystic fibrosis. They may be required for treating and managing emphysema as well. In certain cases, respiratory therapists are in charge of programs helping adults quit smoking.
Respiratory therapists provide pulmonary rehabilitation to help lungs regain more breathing capacity following a traumatic event or surgery. In general, this type of therapy is usually provided in an outpatient setting. RTs work in sleep labs for diagnosing and treating sleep apnea.
Pediatric Respiratory Therapy
Pediatric RTs care for infant and childhood cardiopulmonary problems. They may offer respiratory care in hospitals, neonatal intensive care units, and other similar settings. In certain cases, pediatric respiratory therapists may offer outpatient care for adolescents or children with asthma and other breathing difficulties.
Pediatric emergency transport teams are usually present in hospitals for taking children and newborns to other specialized facilities by helicopter or ambulance. A respiratory therapist and nurse will usually be part of the team.
Geriatric Respiratory Therapy
Our lungs age as we grow older. Respiratory therapy can sometimes help make breathing more efficient in older people. Typically, people over the age of 65 are more susceptible to contractive bronchial pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and respiratory tract infections. Geriatric respiratory therapists work at hospitals, outpatient facilities, and in-home settings.
What Does a Respiratory Therapist’s Work Involve?
Respiratory therapists are necessary for a variety of situations. You will be told if you need a respiratory therapist by your pediatrician, primary care physician, or emergency room doctor. Adults over the age of 65 are most in need of respiratory therapists. Most professionals assess lung capacity to help doctors in treating patients.
They usually work in nursing homes, intensive care units, outpatient clinics, critical care units, and sleep centers. Depending on qualifications and work profile, an RT may specialize in working with seniors or babies and infants. Respiratory therapist’s work can be largely divided into two categories:
The role of a respiratory therapist largely depends on whether the patient is in a hospital or not. The severity of the illness and the reason behind breathing issues are a few other factors. Respiratory therapists may be responsible for the following if you are hospitalized:
- Intubate the patient by inserting a tube through the mouth going all the way down to the windpipe.
- Monitoring breathing and other vital signs of a patient on a ventilator.
- Taking blood samples from the patient for checking their oxygen levels and other diagnostics.
- Giving medications through dry powder, inhalers, and mist.
- Consulting with doctors for clearing mucus from lungs and expanding collapsed lungs to help patients breathe
- Assess lung capacity and how deep a patient can breathe to adjust and manage settings accordingly.
Respiratory therapists offer services as wellness professionals for outpatients. They may help you treat COPD and other ongoing conditions. The therapist may perform a similar treatment as you would get in a hospital. This includes chest physiotherapy and taking diagnostic tests, like blood oxygen tests and lung function tests (spirometry). Respiratory therapists may also help you understand your illness better and teach you ways to manage it. They may help in the following:
- Preventing symptoms.
- Following treatment plans at home.
- Signs to call a doctor.
These are a few other responsibilities of respiratory therapists:
- Monitoring your physiologic responses to therapy, such as lung function changes, arterial blood gases, blood chemistry, and vital signs, and involving a physician in case of an adverse reaction.
- Working as part of the medical team to manage patient care.
- Setting up and operating therapeutic gas administration apparatus, environmental control systems, mechanical ventilators, and aerosol generators among other devices.
- Following specified treatment parameters.
- Providing emergency care, like artificial respiration and external cardiac massage.
- Assisting with cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
- Ensuring safe and efficient functioning of respiratory therapy equipment by inspecting, cleaning, testing, and maintaining it.
- Maintaining charts containing therapy information and patient identification.
- Reading prescriptions, measuring arterial blood gases, assessing lung capacity, and reviewing similar information for evaluating a patient’s condition.
- Relaying blood analysis results to the doctor or physician.
- Resolving equipment problems when required by making emergency visits.
- Ordering repairs for equipment as and when necessary.
- Explaining treatment procedure to patient families.
- Checking pulmonary vitals and functions in patients.
Who Works Alongside a Respiratory Therapist?
Respiratory therapists have a lot of responsibilities in a healthcare setting. They are not just involved with breathing difficulties and lung disease, but a wide range of health conditions, such as sleep disorders. This requires them to work with various medical professionals, including doctors. Their daily responsibilities include modalities in treating pulmonary diseases and advanced procedures.
Respiratory therapists work with nurses, physicians, doctors, and other healthcare professionals. They work directly with patients for providing the best care and support. The job of an RT involves using heavy machinery, such as artificial airway devices. They need to have good interpersonal skills for maintaining relationships with support staff too.
Respiratory therapists are competent in using advanced diagnostic tools for accurately diagnosing the severity of breathing dysfunction in geriatric, adult, and pediatric patients. Registered respiratory therapists are required to apply scientific theory and knowledge for tackling clinical problems in all kinds of settings, such as hospitals and doctor’s offices.
An RT needs to supervise all functions associated with a certified respiratory therapist. The respiratory therapist may need to exercise judicious independent clinical judgment for treating patients with respiratory dysfunction. This may be done under the supervision of a physician.
Why is it Important That We Have Respiratory Therapists in Healthcare?
Respiratory therapists bring detail-oriented and practical experience to a medical team. They play a key role when it comes to handling a wide array of airway and breathing problems. These may stem from a variety of events and conditions, such as:
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome (a serious condition common among survivors of Covid-19).
- Cystic fibrosis
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Spinal muscular dystrophy.
- Traumatic events that prevent patients from breathing on your own.
- Premature babies that are born before their lungs could fully grow.
- Parkinson’s disease
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
- Sleep apnea
Respiratory therapists are required for their authoritative experiences in performing a wide range of respiratory care modalities. This includes breathing treatments, oxygen therapy, pulmonary drainage procedures, humidity-aerosol therapy, pulmonary medicine administration, managing ventilators, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. They also remove mucus from premature infants to help them breathe better.
Respiratory therapists are required in multiple settings, including multi-disciplinary nutrition teams, emergency departments, surgical services, surgical intensive care, medical and cardiac units, and outpatient settings. They bring relevant experience to hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) units, bronchoscopy laboratories, diagnostic pulmonary laboratories, and long-term acute care units.
Respiratory therapists are also required in related fields in certain hospitals, such as counseling patients on not smoking, diagnosing breathing issues in patients with sleep apnea, and assisting in critical care units among others. Breathing difficulties can be caused by a wide range of factors, which is why these professionals are required in multiple healthcare settings.
This is also one of the reasons why the majority of state medical boards have made continuing education credits mandatory for respiratory therapists.
What Equipment Does an RT Use When Working?
Respiratory therapists use a broad range of machines to assist with breathing. Medical ventilators are among the most used machines. These are used to help patients that are unable to breathe on their own because of improper functioning of the lungs. A ventilator is a lifesaving machine that can make it easier to breathe.
Ventilators push air in and out of the lungs to allow your body to get the oxygen it requires. You may be fitted with a mask to ensure the oxygen from the ventilator reaches your lungs. In serious conditions, a breathing tube may be inserted down the patient’s throat to supply oxygen to the lungs.
Ventilators are also known as respirators or breathing machines and are generally used in hospital settings. Based on this, they may be set up in a patient’s home as well if they suffer from a chronic condition. The respiratory therapist will work with a doctor to determine the amount of oxygen that needs to be pushed using the ventilator.
Other breathing equipment used by respiratory therapists include nebulizers, PAP (positive airway pressure) devices, spirometers, pulmonary function testing (PFT) equipment, and humidifiers, manual resuscitators. Patients on ventilators usually need to have their blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen saturation, and respiratory rate monitored.
These devices are generally needed by patients suffering from asthma, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cardiac arrest, brain injury, pneumonia, coma or loss of consciousness, drug overdose, collapsed lung, stroke, hypercapnic respiratory failure, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Respiratory therapists are trained in the use of these devices. They are also required to stay updated with the latest medical advancements and changes in technology by obtaining continuing education credits. Most states require CEUs at the time of license renewal.
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