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KU respiratory therapy students graduate early to help during coronavirus pandemic

April 30, 2020

By Kristi Birch

Close up of hands in gloves intubating a patient

As the pandemic spreads, ventilators for the most seriously ill COVID-19 patients could be in short supply. So could the health care professionals who operate them: respiratory therapists. Thirteen of the 22 seniors in the respiratory therapy program in the University of Kansas School of Health Professions have chosen to graduate early to help fend off that shortage.

According to the World Health Organization, one in six COVID-19 patients becomes seriously ill and has trouble breathing. Respiratory therapists are vital to treating these patients because they are specially trained to operate ventilators as well as provide other types of cardiopulmonary care.

There are 155,000 licensed respiratory therapists in the United States, according to the American Association for Respiratory Care. In 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that the need for respiratory therapists would grow by 23% by 2026. Respiratory therapists typically care for many types of patients who have trouble breathing, including those who have asthma, cystic fibrosis, emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. They also provide emergency care to patients suffering from heart attacks, trauma, drowning or shock.

Bolstering a workforce already stretched thin

Each respiratory therapist can manage several patients at a time, but surges of COVID-19 cases could stretch even thinner the already inadequate number of available therapists.

The KU respiratory therapy students choosing to graduate early followed a revised schedule that the faculty in the Department of Respiratory Care and Diagnostic Science created. The remaining six weeks of the curriculum was condensed into four, enabling the students to graduate by May 1.

"This allows them to get out and work here on our own campus or anywhere in the United States a little earlier and start helping with that kind of frontline care to patients," said David Burnett, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Respiratory Care and Diagnostic Science in the KU School of Health Professions.

Burnett said most of the new graduates will likely work in the Kansas City area.

Susanna Hobbs, a senior from Wichita, plans to work for The University of Kansas Health System during the pandemic. Hobbs said she didn't hesitate when she got the email from Lisa Trujillo, D.H.Sc., program director for the KU respiratory therapy program, explaining the option to graduate early. 

"I thought, why not? Let's go ahead and get this done," said Hobbs. "If Kansas ends up getting a big spike [in COVID-19 cases], I would rather be out helping than sitting at home."

Improving patient outcomes

Mechanical ventilators are complex machines. Respiratory therapists intubate patients, connect the tube to the ventilator and determine the correct ventilator settings for an individual patient's respiratory needs. They then monitor the patient around the clock, managing their breathing and tracking their oxygen levels, as well as adjusting the settings as the patient's condition improves or worsens. 

"We work under the direction of a physician, but a lot of the physicians depend upon our skill and knowledge," said Karen Schell, D.H.Sc., clinical assistant professor in the Department of Respiratory Care and Diagnostic Science and president of the American Association for Respiratory Care.

"We are trained not only to run the ventilator but to understand the how the heart and lungs work together. With COVID-19, we're seeing a lot of patients get very sick, very fast. Being able to recognize that early improves patient outcomes." 

Time to shine

The department worked with the Kansas Board of Healing Arts to accelerate the process of granting the early graduates temporary licenses earlier than usual to enable them to work between graduation and taking their national board exams. 

"Even an entry-level therapist has more than 300 hours of learning about mechanical ventilation," Trujillo said. "That's a huge amount of time for them to spend specifically focused on mechanical ventilation before they graduate. Our students are trained in a way that they can support the COVID-19 patients. They're able to work in that setting."

The students not graduating early will be granted their diplomas on the original date of May 16. Even those not graduating early are expected to make an impact while COVID-19 is still a concern.

"I feel like we have an exceptional cohort of students," Trujillo said. "We're very proud of them as we are all of our students, and we know that they will be saving lives. This is their time to shine."

Last modified: May 01, 2020
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