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Sharp Health News

Breath of life: the role of respiratory therapists

Oct. 19, 2018

Gary Phelps: the role of respiratory therapists

Gary Phelps, manager of respiratory therapy at Sharp Grossmont Hospital.

As humans, we need oxygen to live — it keeps our cells alive and functioning properly. When chronic respiratory disease, cardiovascular disorders, trauma and other conditions make breathing difficult, respiratory therapists are the specially trained health care practitioners who can help.

At Sharp HealthCare, respiratory therapists play an important role on care teams — the diverse group of health care providers who work together to meet the unique needs of each patient. Because so many medical issues can cause breathing troubles, they provide care in almost every hospital unit.

Providing coordinated care to patients of all ages
Respiratory therapists treat patients of all ages, from newborns to adults in their 90s and beyond. These patients may experience chronic conditions such as asthma, emphysema and cardiovascular disease, or may have undergone trauma that requires emergency care, such as cardiac arrest or respiratory shock.

“We participate in the lives of patients from birth to death,” explains Gary Phelps, manager of respiratory therapy at Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “Throughout the hospital, wherever a patient is having trouble breathing, respiratory therapists are there; this could be in labor and delivery with premature babies, in the emergency room with trauma patients and those experiencing asthma symptoms, and everywhere in between.”

As part of their role on a care team, respiratory therapists work closely with doctors, nurses, pharmacists and case managers to develop treatment plans for each patient. They are also heavily involved with health promotion activities and programs, disease management and prevention, clinical decision-making, and patient education.

A number of tools may be used to help patients breathe. Respiratory therapists are experts in all machines and devices used to administer respiratory care treatments and make recommendations on what medications and other therapies to incorporate into care plans. They also manage patients on ventilators and artificial airway devices.

Helping improve quality of life
Education is a major focus of respiratory therapists. When patients with chronic respiratory issues play an active role in managing their condition, they enjoy a better quality of life and are less likely to be readmitted.

Respiratory therapists educate patients on proper use of medications and breathing devices, as well as how to recognize and reduce triggers that worsen their symptoms. Because smoking is one of the leading causes of respiratory issues, they also provide resources to aid smoking cessation.

Education helps patients get ready to return home and manage their health independently. To aid with this transition, respiratory therapists work with case managers to minimize limitations or challenges that may make it difficult for patients to control their symptoms.

By collaborating with other health care providers, providing education and counseling, and administering direct care, respiratory therapists play a key role in improving the medical outcomes and quality of life for patients.

For the news media: To talk with Gary Phelps about respiratory therapy for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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