Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, chronic lower respiratory diseases were a leading cause of disability and death in the United States, ranked fourth for all-cause mortality by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2019. Registered respiratory therapists (RRTs) regularly provide care for these patients who struggle to manage diseases like asthma, chronic bronchitis, COPD, cystic fibrosis and lung cancer.
However, rates of respiratory disease are problematic worldwide. According to HIT Consultant, "over 300 million people around the world are now battling respiratory illness and disease, and the numbers continue to grow each year." In addition, global warming's negative effects on air quality and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the rate of acute and chronic respiratory illnesses, prompting an urgent need to increase the number of healthcare practitioners specializing in respiratory care.
Is Respiratory Therapy Education Changing?
Many RRTs enter the field after completing an associate degree program. The American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC) issued new guidance in 2015, calling on 80% of RRTs to earn or be working toward a bachelor's degree by 2020. While not reached, the AARC goal showcases the need for well-trained RRTs in the modern age.
Northern Kentucky University (NKU) offers a Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Care online program that is tailored to RRT professionals with an associate degree. The flexible online format fosters in-demand skill sets, bolsters students' earning potential and keeps professionals informed of current industry trends.
What Are the Top 5 Respiratory Care Trends?
The top five respiratory care trends defining the future for RRTs include:
- Emerging Smart Technologies
Inhalers and spirometers are essential tools used to manage respiratory disease. Manufacturers have created "smart" versions of these tools that collect and transmit data in real-time or store it for future review. As a result, patients' vitals and symptoms can be monitored from the comfort of their homes. RRTs and other care providers can quickly assess the patient's breathing status and provide feedback.
- Innovative Wearable Devices
Wearable devices, such as smart clothing and stickers, track an individual's breathing patterns over time. Some devices can initiate biofeedback exercises to optimize the user's oxygenation and improve disease management. For example, as noted on The Medical Futurist website, when stickers are placed on the abdomen, they can "measure the strain being put on a user's rib cage." In the future, wearable devices may alert patients to environmental triggers, like smoke or pollution, and prompt the patient to leave the area or take other proactive measures.
- Use of Diagnostic Algorithms
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a game-changer for respiratory care, allowing for more timely and accurate diagnoses and streamlined access to treatment. With evolving smart technologies like electronic stethoscopes and smartphone apps, AI-based software uses diagnostic algorithms to monitor a patient's status and breath sounds. It is sensitive enough to detect subtle changes, such as wheezes and crackles, and automatically notify respiratory therapists and physicians of abnormalities. Some algorithms can analyze CT scans and other lung tests to identify cancerous nodules and loss of function.
- Greater Emphasis on Community Support
Though self-care and management are critical components of living with respiratory disease, long-term success requires a community approach. Individuals who have access to a supportive healthcare team and a range of resources and community programs usually benefit from lower medical costs and fewer complications, says HomeCare Magazine. RRTs will continue to be instrumental in connecting patients to these resources and activities.
- Foster Communication and Collaboration
Given the widespread use of mobile phones and access to smart technologies and wearable devices, receiving care on the go will likely continue to grow in popularity. Telehealth enables RRTs to monitor patients from afar, maintain a line of communication between in-person visits and ultimately strengthen the quality of care and outcomes. With a focus on communication and collaboration, healthcare professionals can learn how patients use telecare services, identify further barriers to care and pinpoint technological improvements to increase engagement.
The field of respiratory care is evolving. Earning a bachelor's degree is the next step for RRTs seeking to practice at the top of their scope and stay abreast of emerging industry trends.
Learn more about NKU's online Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Care program.
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