Medical assistants play a very valuable role, but they are NOT nurses !
Medical assistants play a very valuable
role, but they are NOT nurses !

Medical Assistant vs. Respiratory/Pulmonary Technologist: What You Need to Know

Respiratory therapists (RTs) tend to patients with breathing problems — i.e., perhaps as a result of a chronic disease such as asthma, COPD or emphysema. The case load may include older patients suffering from severe difficulty breathing to preemies with lungs that didn’t fully develop (thus making it necessary for clinicians to find provide the functions of a lungs, such as with the use of a respirator). A respiratory technologist might also have to assist in the treatment of persons who experienced shock, drowning, exposure to a burning house, spending too much time outdoors while the ozone level was too high, or a heart attack.

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This is a typical chore schedule for respiratory/pulmonary therapists:

  • Meet with doctors in order to compose unique-to-the-person treatment plans
  • Examine and/or interview those with cardiopulmonary or breathing difficulties
  • Assess and jot down each patient’s progress
  • Conduct diagnostic test, including the measurement of lung capacity
  • Implement treatments utilizing any one of many methods and tools, including aerosol medications and chest physiotherapy
  • Instruct patients on the proper ways to follow treatments and use meds and equipment, e.g., ventilators

A big part of a respiratory therapist’s job it evaluate patients using many different types of tests. One such test involves lung capacity assessed by having patients breathe into special devices that measure flow and volume of oxygen after inhaling and exhaling. Test may also involve taking blood samples so that carbon dioxide and oxygen levels may be determined using blood/gas analyzers.

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An RT may conduct chest physiotherapy for patients that need mucus removed from their lungs (as in the case of cystic fibrosis), thus making it easier for them to breathe. Removal of mucus is often necessary for many patients suffering from lung disease. The process often requires method to jar or vibrate a patient’s chest or rib cage — ostensibly by tapping on the chest and back, while encouraging patients to cough.

RTs might have to connect breathing impaired patients to respirators and ventilators that help force oxygen into the lungs — in some cases, taking the place of the lungs. Such procedures may include inserting tubes into a patient’s trachea or windpipe; the tubes help establish a connection to the ventilator or respirator. RTs may be responsible to make sure that the equipment has been set up correctly, is working as expected, and is delivering the correct amount of oxygen to the patient.

RTs also often have to do house calls on behalf of bed-ridden patients, the disabled, the elderly and people with unique illnesses like agoraphobia. In such settings, RTs would be required to instruct patients and family members on the proper and safe ways to use ventilators (e.g., C-PAP machines) and other types of life-supporting equipment. While on these calls, RTs may have to inspect, test and clean equipment, assess whether any environmental hazards exist in the home that might negatively affect treatments, and ascertain whether patients know how and when to take medications and treatments (e.g., liquid oxygen).

Although many of the tasks RTs perform are well-diagrammed and what we might call “routine,” they also periodically conduct or participate in out-of-the-ordinary tasks. They might for example, assist or play the role of polysomnography technicians, such as by helping to diagnose sleep apnea conditions or participating in “stop smoking” health education campaigns. As for the latter, they might deliver presentations, speeches or simply help put together literature on the subject.

Most RTs work in a hospital setting; the rest work in doctor’s offices and nursing homes. This position is can be physically demanding, often requiring having to stand often and for long periods of time, lifting/turning patients, and carrying or pushing heavy equipment from room to room.

Here are some of the major differences between MAs and RTs:

  • Whereas MA often have merely a certificate or diploma from a technical or trade school, respiratory/pulmonary therapists usually have an AS in their field; actually, many of them have completed a BS or an MS — some a PhD in pulmonary medical sciences.
  • The RT job may often be more physically demanding for many reasons; this includes having to move around more than an MA. An MA is generally assigned to a ward or a floor or he/she may not leave a doctor’s office. An RT may be on call for a whole hospital or nursing home; he/she may also often have to visit people in their homes or assisted-living facility.
  • The job of an RT is more clearly stated and described and RTs don’t generally deviate from their focus — i.e., breathing problems.
  • MAs may often be asked to do things (like EKGs and phlebotomy) that were meant to be done by people who specialize; like most of the other jobs in healthcare, RTs pretty much stick to their area of specialization.
  • Except for the state of Alaska, RTs are licensed by the state; MAs are not yet licensed, though they may be “certified.”
  • RTs generally have more autonomy than MAs; for example, an RT may report directly to the head of the pulmonary department (generally a physician) but MAs report to all the people above them on the floor for that date and time — i.e., nurses, PAs, NPs, and other people that may outrank them if only slightly (such as by a “Certified” or “Clinical” Medical Assistant). In some settings, MAs may also have to take direction from LPNs. RTs, on the other hand, while they may collaborate or assist many of these people, don’t necessarily have to take orders from all these “chiefs.”
  • Since pulmonary therapy is a specialty, an MA would have to go back to school to earn a degree in this field before qualifying to enter it. If the MA has an associate’s in medical assisting, then some of his/her college credits should count (if not more than 10 years old — though the date may differ by institution) toward an associate in pulmonary therapy sciences — specially the core science courses like anatomy, physiology, chemistry, etc. There is no question, however, that an MA would have advantages over someone with no medical education or training and, therefore, completing the educational requirements should require less time than it would for other candidates.
  • Pulmonary/respiratory therapists generally get paid (median about $57K) better than MAs and for a number of reasons have better job security — for one thing, there doesn’t appear to be a glut of unemployed RTs in the country right now, as there is of MAs. Some of the reasons include the fact that it takes longer to become an RT, it is more difficult a program to complete, and it’s more of a monetary investment.
  • Unlike MAs, most (if not all) RTs are “certified”–usually by the National Board of Respiratory Care (NBRC). In fact, one can be a CRT (Certified Respiratory Therapist) or a RRT (Registered Respiratory Therapist). MAs are advised to get certified (since it usually leads to better money and more responsibilities), but this is optional.
  • Job prospects for RTs is excellent, considering the fact that air pollution is getting worse, the population of elderly persons is increasing dramatically, and chronic diseases in general (many of which affect or involve the respiratory system) are all increasing in incidence and prevalence. The job prospect for MAs, on the other hand, is much more uncertain.
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