Today’s RT Students Will Step into a Profession that Will Be Better Prepared for Future Crises, and More Crucial Than Ever Before

Respiratory therapy has gone from a relatively predictable, quiet, yet essential service that few people ever thought about prior to 2020… to suddenly becoming the last line of defense against a terrifying and painful death for tens of thousands as the wave of COVID-19 sweeps across the world.

The images are on every TV screen, and haunt laptops and phones as people constantly check on the latest reports: tired men and women in blue scrubs and gowns, their faces deeply lined from wearing masks and goggles twelve or more hours a day, finding a few precious minutes to sit down in the blurry part of the safe zone outside of infection control areas to tell the world what’s going on in America’s hospitals.

It’s not just front-line RTs that are getting whacked over the head by COVID-19; if you are a student training to enter the profession, you’re dealing with your own set of challenges right now too.

As colleges across the country either shut down or move to primarily online classes, anyone enrolled in a traditional on-campus RT degree program is facing some difficult times ahead. If you are lucky, that just means a shift to studying online. But as a future practitioner living through a chapter in American history that will show up in RT textbooks for generations to come, you’re in a unique position to start preparing today for the new future of respiratory therapy.

New RT Technologies Are Coming in the Post-Pandemic World… But Old Strategies are Saving Lives Today

Of course, many respiratory therapists see, and expect to see, devastating things over the course of their career. Their patients are often people who can’t breathe for themselves at all, and without intervention, they die. So RTs are used to patients who are in pretty bad shape. But they are also used to being able to keep them breathing – and alive.

With the 2020 coronavirus outbreak things are different. Coronavirus has completely swamped RTs in many parts of the country with the dead and dying. With respiratory failure being the main cause of death, the dire situation has put the skills of those therapists on the spot.

Fighting a new and relatively unknown disease adds other pressures as well:

  • Fear of becoming infected during intubation and extubation or other therapy procedures that generate airborne droplets
  • Uncertainty over the best course of treatment
  • Having to work with insufficient medical supplies and protective equipment

Thanks to aggressive social distancing efforts, much of the United States has, thankfully, not run entirely out of critical ventilator equipment as has happened elsewhere in the world.

As hospitals around the world were being overwhelmed by a high number of patients requiring mechanical ventilation, far surpassing the number of ventilators on hand, an important discovery that came out of post-catastrophe analysis from years past came into play.

A 2006 feasibility study that looked into sharing ventilators among up to four different patients in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was pulled off the shelf, dusted off, and then used to help doctors at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan keep COVID-19 patients alive, according to the New York Times. You’ll see similar strategic and technical advances come from analysis of the COVID-19 crisis as well.

Already, new 3-D printed splitters that allow multiple patients to use a single ventilator simultaneously are hitting the market, and similar advances are being explored for rapidly creating PPE on-site at hospitals. Some of the innovations coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic will be contingencies that we hope never to see used again; others may become a regular part of life in any healthcare facility.

Just like you are likely to see people who have lived through this crisis become more compulsive hand washers for the rest of their lives, the medical industry will likely take some of the basic infection control protocols that have become necessary during the COVID-19 outbreak and incorporate them into standard practices.

Although infection control is already a big deal in hospitals, much is being learned and more serious steps are being taken now that could potentially lead to fewer hospital infections for all types of transmissible diseases… a win for healthcare over the long-term in every field.

The full scope of the changes coming to the RT profession won’t be known until the full impact of COVID-19 has been weighed. But one thing is for sure: the changes taking place at this very moment will echo through the healthcare industry for years to come.

How Respiratory Therapy Programs are Handling a Sudden Shift to Online Learning

You may not have initially picked an online degree program for your respiratory therapy studies, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a perfectly valid way learn the basics. Many respiratory therapists practicing today passed through those programs and found jobs, respect, and professional fulfillment. That’s all good evidence that you can get all the skills you need with online courses.

And because we’re getting a vivid real-time demonstration of just how important respiratory therapy programs are right now, you can bet that your instructors are going to be more serious and diligent than ever. There is zero chance you are going to skate through class without having to prove you have absorbed the critical, life-saving information required.

Of course, not all courses in the typical RT associate’s or bachelor’s program are related specifically to the job; many routine classes in liberal arts, math, and science are part of those degree plans and will also be offered online at schools that are equipped to deliver them. So, depending on where you are in the process of earning your degree, you could have some relatively easy coursework to get started on as you get your bearings.

Online Classes Are Typically Delivered Through a Learning Management System

All the magic of modern remote learning takes place on a software platform known as a Learning Management System (LMS), which is set up and maintained by your school. All you have to do is access it from your computer.

These systems incorporate almost every element needed to re-create the classroom experience on your home computer… or, increasingly, even on tablets or mobile devices, as many allow you to download apps that interface directly with the school system.

Common LMS platforms that schools us to deliver curriculum to remote students include:

Just about every college in the country will use one of these, and though they are developed by different companies, the services are typically about the same and include:

  • Audio and video streaming
  • Boards for assigning homework, and portals for collecting assignments securely
  • Forum and chat room features for communication with instructors and fellow students
  • Online whiteboards for interactive learning

For the most part, these are all made available through a basic web-browser, in a unified package that reduces your need to learn any new technical skills.

For schools that don’t run an LMS, you might find the experience a little more barebones and rudimentary. But a plain old e-mail account and some basic office software are often enough to get the job done, put together with some ad-hoc tools that we’ll talk about a bit later.

How Online Classes are Delivered

Online classes aren’t actually all that mysterious. There are really only two formats that you might encounter:

  • Synchronous – Synchronous courses are basically what you get if you take a regular classroom presentation and upload it to the cloud. Through video streaming or other online presentation systems, instructors and students all gather simultaneously on a set schedule and the instructor delivers the same lecture they would give on-site. A virtual whiteboard and video or chat features allows students and instructors to interact in real-time. Assignments are given, and everyone goes off and completes them just as you would have done after an in-person lecture.
  • Asynchronous – Asynchronous classes throw out the requirement that everyone show up and participate at the same time. These are the types of classes that make online learning synonymous with convenience and flexibility. With asynchronous courses, instructors pre-record their lecture or presentation and put it on the LMS for students to access at any time day or night. This means you essentially attend class on your own time, and use e-mail or forums to discuss the material with classmates and ask questions. Assignments are completed by a deadline and uploaded for the instructor to review.

Although it’s a more foreign experience at first, many online students find that they come to prefer asynchronous courses for the freedom and flexibility they offer. They do require more self-discipline however, both to complete the material and to participate in discussions.

Schools are Stepping Up to Offer Extra Support to Online RT Students

If you were thinking you needed to be some kind of IT wizard to cope with online classes, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Most of the kinks have long since been worked out of the process, and Learning Management Systems take care of a lot of the possible pressure points by delivering most of their services right through the common web browser you already have. So if you have enough technological acumen to read this blog post, you have enough to get connected to your school’s LMS.

But that doesn’t mean your current hardware or software setup at home meets the necessary minimum requirements. You’ll have to consult your school’s IT department website to see what the standards are. If your setup doesn’t quite make the grade, well, at least Amazon still delivers. And many schools are working hard to put together loaner programs to get students the equipment they need to get connected… everything from laptop computers to cellular-powered wifi hotspots for those without internet access.

What Kind of Hardware Will You Need for Online Classes?

Because they usually run right in the web browser, you don’t need anything fancy to connect to most LMS platforms. If you have a Mac or PC computer that doesn’t have more than a half-inch of dust or so piled up on it, chances are that it’s plenty powerful enough to get your classes and homework assignments done.

That’s a bare minimum, however. If you have the means, there are some other bits of computer hardware that you might want to pick up to make your online coursework a little bit more tolerable. Those include:

  • Big-screen or multiple computer monitors – One of the biggest complaints remote students have is that it’s just tough to view a class, consult online reference materials, and take notes or work on assignments all at the same time on the average size laptop screen, or even some desktops. So getting a bigger monitor, or more than one, can make your life easier and your eyes a lot less blurry at the end of a day of study.
  • Portable computing power – On the other hand, it’s nice to have a small screen around sometimes, too. You’ll get pretty tired of sitting at your desk for hours and hours when you are also stuck in your house for days and weeks. A decent tablet or even a big phone can allow you to relocate some of your reading and homework out to the deck, or even just to another room for a while.

The Software Will You Need is Likely Free and Readily Available

If your school is using an LMS, then you will already have access to the basic software you need to view your course content. And many schools have deals for academic discounts or free access to software like Office 365 Education, from Microsoft, for the basic word processing and spreadsheet work a lot of your homework assignments and projects are likely to require.

But some additional inexpensive or freely available software may make your life easier. To block out online distractions while you study, for example, you might look at programs like:

For note-taking and mind-mapping exercises, there are apps like:

And because you are in a science-heavy field, you may have some classes that still involve old-fashioned paper-based homework, like algebra or calculus. If you have to turn in assignments that show your work, then you can make use of scanning apps that capture it digitally and allow you to mark it up, like these:

Basic versions are often available for free, or you can spend a little extra to get all the bells and whistles.

Schools May Be Forced to Ease Some Practicum Requirements to Get RTs Into the Field Faster

While some healthcare training programs have found ways to struggle through the COVID-19 problem with virtual or optional solutions to clinical practicum requirements, the strain on respiratory therapy professionals has all but completely shut down student practicums as every possible supervisor is occupied full-time with active treatment in much of the country. In places that have not been hard hit yet, they are gearing up and preparing to engage, and simply won’t be as available to offer guidance to students in training.

Schools are still struggling to figure out how to address these issues. Solutions under consideration include:

  • Waiving remaining practicum requirements for students at the very end of their training
  • Accepting virtual and simulated clinical hours instead
  • Delaying the requirements until on-site practicum is available again

Depending on where you are in the course of your studies, these issues could have a greater or lesser impact on the timeline of your graduation. If you’re very near the end of your program you might be among those allowed into the field a little bit earlier. But if not, even though your program might figure out a virtual work-around for some components of your practical training, you should ultimately expect graduation to be delayed if supervisors aren’t available to oversee your clinical hours.

What you can be sure of is that even if allowances are made to get RTs who happen to be very close to completing their training out into the field a little faster, stringent practice standards and requirements for certification mean that practicums won’t be waived entirely or indefinitely. In the end, your school may be allowed a little bit of discretion to help meet the needs of area hospitals, but the standards of professional competence aren’t going to become more lax, especially at a time when respiratory therapy is taking center stage in the fight to save lives.

Keeping Your Cool When It Feels Like the Sky is Falling

All of this help and support that schools are throwing behind virtual classes don’t necessarily make it easy for you. That’s because—in addition to all the personal stress you must be feeling in the middle of the pandemic, not to mention anxiety about how your chosen profession is being affected by it—there are some real and substantial challenges that come along with moving to online classes, even in normal times.

Students who are shifting to online coursework often report difficulties with self-discipline and time management, not to mention feelings of isolation and disconnection.

And, worse, because you are doing all this for the first time during social distancing requirements, many of the typical ways to handle those problems just aren’t available. You can’t go join a study group, or hang out at a cafe or library for a little social contact, or stop in at the campus IT desk for assistance. It’s all online, now, and you are, in some respects, on your own.

You Can Access School Services Even During Campus Shut-Downs

If you were studying on campus, chances are you were enjoying access to a lot of other things too, like being able to do research at the library or computer lab, getting help through writing workshops or career advising services, or even getting healthcare services at the on campus clinic.

The good news is that most colleges are working overtime to transition as many services as possible to online systems to make sure everything is just as readily available to students who now have to attend class remotely.

That means your healthcare might come via telehealth consultations (probably the safest thing at this point anyway), while libraries put up digitized collections for reference material, while writing and career counseling services are handled by e-mail or even wrapped right into the same LMS you are using for classes.

Many schools have put together pretty comprehensive resource pages detailing their services for online students at this point, so consult your school’s website for details.

Build Out Your Own Quaranteam

You’re not the only one in this situation, obviously. Many of your classmates are experiencing the exact same sense of uncertainty as you are. So band together! With all the bad news these days, the internet may be the source of much of your stress, but it can also be the thing that saves you. Start up virtual study groups. Hop on Zoom every morning in an impromptu coffee meeting to check in with your mates and get psyched for the day.

You can use your networking tools for way more than just streaming course lectures, and though some of it might seem trivial right now, it could really help to reduce the sense of isolation many students in your exact situation are experiencing.

Keep a Schedule

It’s way too easy to just stay in bed longer, and longer, and longer… grabbing your laptop around noon and picking through a few assignments while still buried in pillows is no way to go through life, though. The first few days it feels great; after that, you just feel like a slacker. It’s demotivating and it gets your brain out of the rhythm it needs to be in to get through your program.

So get up at a reasonable hour; eat a real breakfast, take a shower, get dressed. Carve out a specific time to study, even if you are on an asynchronous class schedule. You’ll find your concentration improving and your performance and attitude will be better than ever.

Renew Your Excitement About RT by Learning About Innovations and Improvements in the Field

From a purely scientific and medical perspective, the tragic events we’re living through are opening up new frontiers of knowledge in respiratory therapy, diagnostics, and technology.

The field is evolving rapidly, and if you don’t devote some attention to understanding those developments, you may only graduate with the level of readiness expected of the last generation of RTs… but what is actually needed now is a generational progression in RT knowledge and practices to include a bigger emphasis on emergency protocols.

New scientific papers on the effects of the disease on the lungs are being published all the time. Best practices and effective algorithms are being published and updated by major research hospitals at the heart of the outbreak, including this ED preparation guide from the University of Washington. So take some of the spare time you were planning to use playing another round of Halo and dig in to the latest literature so you can build your knowledge up to meet the new standards that are sure to be in place in the post-pandemic world.

What the Coronavirus Outbreak Means for Respiratory Therapy in the Long-term

Clearly, no event as large as the COVID-19 pandemic goes by without creating some long-term effects. Just as clearly, you can’t accurately predict exactly what all those effects will be while in the middle of the crisis. Still, there are a few changes we can pretty much bank on.

Healthcare workers are the heroes of the hour right now, and respiratory therapists are front and center in those ranks. More press is being generated about the profession now than has emerged in the past decade. The public are hungry for details, and will come out the other side of the epidemic with far more awareness of what RTs do and how important they are.

That’s likely to increase recruitment to the field, as well as demand from healthcare organizations that have been caught short-staffed through the crisis. With the strong projected growth rates the profession was already slated for, this is expected to push wages higher.

COVID-19 has given the entire American healthcare system a jolt. While RTs are in high demand, some healthcare workers are actually being furloughed right now as the non-emergency or elective procedures they provide are sidelined during the crisis. Just ask any dental hygienist, orthopedic surgical tech, or medical office assistant in a small practice how business is going right now, and you’ll be glad you chose a line of work as stable and in-demand as respiratory therapy.

Patients who are becoming unemployed due to the associated economic crisis are losing their health insurance, further reducing revenue streams for healthcare providers. It’s becoming clear that the entire structure of the healthcare system is unsustainable in large shocks of this sort. You can expect to see some major proposals for restructuring American health insurance and industry standards in the wake of the pandemic; changes that are likely to be good for your employment prospects, job stability and income.

Perhaps oddly, it might be a bit difficult to go back to counseling asthma patients and running nebulizers on COPD cases after the adrenaline junket that has been the COVID-19 wave. Like soldiers, the ranks of respiratory therapists can expect to experience some psychological distress by the time this thing is over. So you can expect that healthcare systems will be providing RTs and other healthcare workers with more mental health resources than ever before.

As is the case with most medical catastrophes, there will be advances that emerge from this fight that will likely also benefit even the normal cases that you treat day-to-day when things get back to normal.

Using your time now to prepare to enter a field that has been dramatically altered by COVID-19 may be one of the best ways to maintain your focus and keep your eyes on the goal when the images coming from the frontline make you want to run for the door. Maybe it’s better to think of it this way: the more prepared you are for the changes that are just around the corner, the better prepared you’ll be to save lives when the next respiratory disease outbreak hits.

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