Spokane Journal of Business

SCC takes it up a degree with first four-year program

Expanded offering to prep respiratory therapists

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-—Treva Lind
Spokane Community College students Hope Caruthers, left, and Courtney Maxfield work with a body box, used to measure lung volume, as Gary White, respiratory care program director at SCC, looks on. Caruthers and Maxfield are first-year students in respiratory care.

Demand for respiratory therapists is growing alongside that discipline’s increased educational requirements, soon to be packaged into Spokane Community College’s first four-year degree program.

Starting next fall, SCC will offer its new bachelor of applied science in respiratory care. The program builds on and will replace a two-year SCC associate degree program that typically attracts 20 students per admission class. Educators say employers such as hospitals are increasing their requirements for educational levels and competencies for new respiratory therapists.

The American Association for Respiratory Care also is pushing for a bachelor’s degree to be the minimum education required to enter the profession by 2020.

“About 85 percent of my graduates work in hospitals,” says Gary White, SCC respiratory care program manager and faculty member. “Typically, we admit 20 each fall, and that is not going to change.”

Respiratory education programs train practitioners to work with patients who have heart and lung diseases. Respiratory therapists care for patients who have trouble breathing, such as those with a chronic respiratory disease, such as asthma or emphysema. Their patients range from premature infants with undeveloped lungs to elderly patients who have diseased lungs.

Practitioners also provide emergency care to patients suffering from heart attacks, drowning, or shock. In hospitals, respiratory therapists manage mechanical ventilators that support a patient who has stopped breathing, White says. 

By 2022, demand for respiratory therapists nationally is expected to increase by 21 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The state level is expected to mirror that,” White says. “The reason for that is the demographics of the population. We’re all getting older, and chronic diseases of the heart and lung go with aging. And right now, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is the No. 3 killer in the country. It’s becoming more prevalent. We work with those patients.” 

The accredited SCC degree will take four years to earn, but it will differ in some respects from a traditional bachelor of science degree offered at universities in that the BAS general education requirements are somewhat lighter so students have more study time to master technical content. 

“It’s more professional focused, has more classes that go deeper into the content of the profession,” White says. “The profession is changing; they’re moving into baccalaureate-entry requirements.”

Students graduate to become licensed respiratory therapists, or another title used under state licensing is respiratory care practitioner, according to White.   

“The content that needs to be covered continues to expand,” he says. “An example is the core textbook we’ve used for decades. With the first publication in 1969, if you go through the index, the topic of patient assessment has seven pages. In the current 2017 publication, there are eight chapters and 154 pages covering patient assessment.”

That assessment includes a physical exam and looking at chest X-rays and laboratory results as part of determining a patient’s condition.

“We write treatment plans specific to that patient and their condition, so you have to correctly assess the patient’s condition,” White says. “The professional content is expanding. It’s beyond what you can do in two academic years.”

As part of SCC’s respiratory therapy curriculum, students have lecture classes but also laboratory classes to practice skills, while using sophisticated equipment in the school’s labs to get ready for clinical work. After that preparation, the students are then taken into hospitals for clinical work done under licensed supervision to take care of patients.

Examples of respiratory therapy curriculum include the study of cardiopulmonary anatomy and physiology, and pathophysiology. Students attain an in-depth understating of the heart and lungs. 

“You can’t treat any area of the lungs without considering the heart; they’re so interconnected,” White says. 

He adds, “The way I tell prospective students about the profession is we’re similar to nursing in that we give direct patient care, and we work with patients one on one. However, we’re different in that we use a lot of sophisticated equipment and we have to interface that equipment directly with the patient to get desired clinical outcomes.”     

In labs, students learn such skills as pulmonary function testing, medical gas administration, aerosolized medication delivery, mechanical ventilation, and airway management skills using equipment. Another common piece of equipment is what’s called a body box used to measure lung volumes. A patient breathes into a tube and equipment measures lung capacity, volume, flow rates, and airway resistance, among other things. It’s used in diagnosis of lung disease.  

The new bachelor’s degree program will require 850 hours of clinical work started in the spring term of students’ sophomore year and continued every term until they graduate. 

SCC is on a quarter system, with three terms per year. The BAS will require one year of general education and three of the professional course studies, White says. Students can apply as soon as general education requirements are completed, and program faculty interview prospective candidates by late spring or early summer each year to enter the program in the fall. 

General education requirements are similar to SCC’s other health care-related programs, such as for nursing and radiology studies.

Current respiratory therapy students have studied much of the growing body of education requirements for the discipline, but under an intensive study program packed into two academic study years following a first year of completing pre-requisites with sciences, “so we were three-fourths of the way there already,” White adds.

Classes for the program always start in the fall, and a current group of first-year students that started in fall 2016 will be the last to graduate with an associate applied science degree in spring 2018. Though this is the first four-year degree offered at SCC, Spokane Falls Community College has added three such bachelor’s degree programs. They are for a BAS in applied management, information systems and technology, and—starting this fall—one in cybersecurity.

Starting pay for respiratory therapists typically entering work at hospitals is about $27 an hour in this region, White says. With shift differentials and working weekends, it’s not unusual for relatively new respiratory therapists to earn about $30 an hour, he adds.

“Eighty-five percent of my students stay local, and by that I mean from Post Falls to Medical Lake. About 15 percent go to Wenatchee, Walla Walla, Richland, or down to Lewiston sometimes. There are openings all over.” 

He adds that respiratory therapists usually work in hospitals and in larger physician practice groups, such as those operated by pulmonary specialists. They also are employed by rehabilitation and long-term care facilities as well as by home health care agencies.  

“This is the only respiratory care program east of the Cascades in Washington,” White says, including at the AA level. “The others are in Tacoma, Midway (SeaTac), and Seattle Central College.”

Treva Lind
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