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Common Ways Respiratory Therapists Improve Quality of Life

Respiratory therapists (RTs) have always been integral to team-based care and key players in improving patient outcomes and quality of life. However, the pandemic has underscored this allied health career and its contributions to patients’ day-to-day living.   

Today, RTs work in several care settings, have an expanded scope of practice and must make more complex clinical decisions. To meet the needs of patients, the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC) recommends that all RTs hold a bachelor’s degree. The Northern Kentucky University (NKU) Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Respiratory Care online program equips graduates with deeper knowledge and the management acumen to advance to leadership positions and provide a higher level of patient care.

What Conditions Do RTs Treat?   

While RTs care for patients with acute illnesses like pneumonia, much of their work focuses on those with chronic diseases and teaching them to manage their symptoms and navigate activities of daily living.

RTs work closely with patients with chronic lower respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, emphysema and asthma. These conditions affect a substantial portion of the population, which means skilled RTs can have an immediate and lasting impact on many patients and their families.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 5% of U.S. adults have COPD, emphysema or chronic bronchitis. As many as 1 in 13 people in the U.S. has asthma, notes the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. In addition, the CDC reports that chronic lower respiratory diseases represent the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. This proves that respiratory therapists are in high demand, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes the outlook for job growth for professionals in this field is 14% between 2021 and 2031.

Individuals with chronic lower respiratory diseases may struggle with physical and mental symptoms. Fatigue, breathlessness, cough, anxiety and depression are common, as are social isolation and socioeconomic disparities. Without proper management, these factors can lead to poor quality of life, disability and death.

How Do RTs Enhance Patients’ Quality of Life?

According to Breathe in September 2019, “advanced respiratory disease imposes a greater symptom burden than many cancers but does not have comparable recognition of the need for supportive and palliative care or the infrastructure for its systematic delivery.”

Given the considerable effect lung conditions have on patients’ lives, RTs can offer mental and emotional support and find small, sustainable ways to enrich patient well-being. To honor patient needs, the AARC recommends that RTs follow the three Es: engage, educate and empower.

RTs should talk to patients to identify what they know about their condition, their short- and long-term goals and areas they want to improve. Intentional and careful conversations allow RTs to create customized care plans to facilitate the most meaningful and impactful changes.

Once RTs know the extent of a patient’s understanding, they can offer additional, targeted education to the patient and caregivers. Education empowers patients to take steps toward better health by managing their symptoms without exacerbating the disease.

In many cases, patients may feel a near-immediate sense of relief and change in outlook just by having someone listen to their concerns. Still, others may benefit from more detailed explanations of how the condition influences physiological and emotional health. For example, suppose the patient primarily struggles with anxiety. In that case, the RT may explain how worry or fear can lead to hyperventilation and a sense of breathlessness, which may cause the patient to reduce their activity, creating a cycle that worsens their condition. RTs can teach patients to recognize these patterns and use techniques like mindfulness and walking aids to keep moving toward their goals.

How an Advanced Degree Can Help

Chronic respiratory illnesses are difficult to manage and impact every area of patients’ lives. Graduates of a B.S. in Respiratory Care program are well prepared to not only treat patients’ respiratory needs but also improve their quality of life. Knowledgeable RTs with an advanced degree encourage patients, anticipate trends in the field and give patients with the tools to meet their health goals and lead fulfilling lives.

Learn more about NKU’s online B.S. in Respiratory Care program.

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