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Respiratory Therapists: Who they are and what they treat

Posted October 25, 2020 by Brian Bauman, M.D. & Kyle Jendral, MS-RC, RRT-ACCS, AE-C

Doctor placing stethoscope on patients back

Are you suffering from asthma, bronchitis, emphysema or another lung problem? A respiratory therapist may be able to help.

One out of six Americans will suffer from a serious pulmonary (lung) disease at some time in their lives. Of those afflicted, however, many patients don’t realize a respiratory therapist can help them overcome breathing problems and breathe easier — all the while increasing their quality of life.

As vital members of the healthcare team, respiratory therapists are licensed medical professionals that test and treat acute or chronic lung problems, breathing disorders and airway issues. They are required to complete an accredited associate, or higher, degree program and must pass a national exam to become a certified respiratory therapist (CPT). Most go on to pass the subsequent registered respiratory therapist (RRT) national exam and/or obtain other advanced credentials in areas of specialties.  

Respiratory therapists are not doctors, but instead work alongside them to help diagnose and manage conditions. They often treat patients with the following conditions and more.

  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome
  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Emphysema
  • Flu
  • Lung cancer
  • Lung trauma from accidents or inhalation injury
  • Pneumonia
  • Sleep apnea

What type of treatment do respiratory therapists provide?

Respiratory therapists can be found typically in emergency rooms, intensive care units, outpatient clinics, maternity wards, nursing homes or sleep centers. Some specialize in working with infants born prematurely with underdeveloped lungs, while others work with adults and some strictly with senior citizens.

They help improve outcomes by assessing a patient’s breathing, which may include performing chest exams, recommending adjustments to their treatment plan, which may include exercises, and monitoring their progress.

Respiratory therapists provide both inpatient and outpatient therapy, depending on the severity of the patient’s condition. To do so, respiratory therapists must also be experts in the machines and devices they use to administer respiratory care treatments.

If a patient is hospitalized, inpatient therapy may include:

  • Placing patients on ventilators by first intubating them by inserting a tube through their mouth and down to their windpipe. The ventilator is a machine that helps move air in and out of the lungs.
  • Monitoring patients’ breathing on the ventilator and other vital signs
  • Obtaining blood samples and checking their oxygen levels in their blood
  • Administering aerosol-based medications
  • Analyzing chest X-rays and sputum samples
  • Conducting pulmonary function tests (PFT) to see how well their lungs work and how deeply they can breathe
  • Working alongside doctors to clear mucus from their lungs or expand collapsed lungs

If patients are suffering from a chronic condition, respiratory therapists can help them manage the disease through outpatient therapy. They may perform the following:

  • Run similar tests for inpatients, such as pulmonary (lung) function tests and blood oxygen levels
  • Teach patients how to help prevent symptoms from their chronic condition and show them relaxation and breathing techniques (to help ward off panic that ensues when someone experiences extreme breathing problems)
  • Counsel them in lung health, such as smoking cessation or asthma education
  • Show them how to follow their treatment plan at home
  • Educate them on signs when it’s time to call a doctor

To help patients breathe easier again, Summa Health offers a pulmonary rehabilitation program through the Heart, Lung and Vascular Rehab Clinic. Learn more by calling 330.375.7121.

To schedule an appointment for a pulmonary function test (PFT) at any of our locations, call 877-996-8881. A physician referral is required.

To schedule a Sleep Study please call Summa Sleep Scheduling 330-996-7711. A physician referral is required.
Brian D Bauman, MD

Brian D Bauman, MD

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