Respiratory Therapy: A Key Health Service in Tobacco Country

By July 29, 2019 September 19th, 2019 Uncategorized
Respiratory therapist holds an oxygen mask with a nebulizer as a coughing patient watches in the background.

In North Carolina, where generations of families farmed and used tobacco, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, is a common health problem.

“COPD is very prevalent here, especially in Stokes,” said Samantha Freeman-Brown, Director of Respiratory Care at LifeBrite Community Hospital of Stokes.  “Even in my family, it’s been an issue.”

Freeman-Brown comes from a family of tobacco farmers, and she has seen first-hand the effects it can have. Her grandfather died from complications caused by COPD. Her father, who has a master’s in physics, started smoking when he was 18. He didn’t stop until this year despite years of her telling him, “You need to quit smoking.”

Today she helps current and former smokers every day in the respiratory therapy department at LifeBrite Community Hospital of Stokes.

High expectations and low turnovers

Freeman-Brown says she has high expectations for the respiratory care practitioners in her department at LifeBrite. All are BLS (basic life support), ACLS ( advanced cardiovascular life support) and PALS (pediatric advanced life support) certified because, in a critical access hospital, you have to be ready to handle just about any situation.

Critical access hospitals (CAH) play a vital role in maintaining access to high-quality health care services in rural communities. A critical access hospital must:

  • Be 35 miles from another hospital
  • Have a 24-hour emergency room that operates seven days a week
  • Have a maximum of 25 inpatient beds for acute care or swing-bed services
  • Maintain an annual average length of stay of 96 hours or less for acute care patients

“We are an hour’s drive from other hospitals. So our respiratory therapists have to know their stuff,” said Freeman-Brown. All of her employees have been there for more than five years. They stay, she says, because they enjoy the community aspect of the care they provide.

“We almost always know our patients by name,” she said. Respiratory care is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at LifeBrite, she added.

Respiratory care for all ages

The respiratory care services provided by LifeBrite are near-identical to those offered in other hospitals. LifeBrite RT services include oxygen therapy, nebulizer treatment, medication education, breathing assessments and emergency treatments to help with pneumonia, asthma and COPD.

“We also do cardiac stress testing, 48-hour cardiac monitors and pulmonary function testing for the diagnosis of COPD,” said Freeman-Brown.

In many cases, getting services from a smaller healthcare provider has benefits. For instance, a larger provider may not be able to schedule a respiratory therapy appointment for several weeks. “But if someone comes into a clinic today, nine times out of ten, we can do testing on the same day,” she said. “Once the testing is complete, we can send the results over immediately, and the patient can go ahead and get treatment.”

Treating COPD

COPD is a long-term, progressive lung disease that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Tobacco smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Fifteen to twenty percent of all smokers develop clinically significant COPD, according to Community Care of North Carolina, a nonprofit group dedicated to supporting community-based health systems in the state.

Chronic lower respiratory disease, including COPD, is the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Freeman-Brown says her department encourages COPD patients to take small steps toward improving their health and comfort. They also teach them the importance of taking shorter, more frequent breaks. 

“We also encourage smoking cessation. Some people who quit a week ago will say they are a nonsmoker. But you aren’t really a nonsmoker until you have gone six months without tobacco,” she said.

Their dedication to providing long-term quality care for their patients has paid off. The department has been awarded the Quality Respiratory Care Award for five consecutive years by the American Association of Respiratory Care. Only 700 out of 5,000 hospitals nationwide meet the criteria.

“For us being this small, it’s a huge accomplishment and a testament to the fact that we can and do provide excellent respiratory care to our patients,” Freeman-Brown said.

Atlanta-based LifeBrite Hospital Group, led by CEO Christian Fletcher, operates LifeBrite Community Hospital of EarlyLifeBrite Laboratories, and LifeBrite Community Hospital of Stokes. To learn more about LifeBrite Community Hospital of Stokes, visit our homepage.