By Linda Nozart-Frierson MPH, BSRT, RRT, AE-C
Respiratory Therapists are the Batman and Batgirl of the hospital, always saving the day with our medical devices and then returning to our post when things are under control, with folks possibly not knowing our name other than saying “Respiratory!” As cardiopulmonary specialists, our superpower is that we are Subject Matter Experts. We can have more control of that superpower by investing in furthering our knowledge and skills.
No one nominated me or told me to be an Asthma Champion. During one of my night shift assignments on the trauma team covering peds ER in 2010, my life changed after I lost a five-year-old African American boy who went into cardiac arrest three times because of status asthmaticus. The boy was in the care of his grandmother who didn’t realize the signs and symptoms of an asthma attack. I decided then that I never wanted that to happen to another family again. I envisioned what that world would look like and who I had to be to execute accordingly.
As a Respiratory Therapist and public health educator, I continue to learn how to control my superpower. As an asthma educator, I use this superpower to cater to the community and the hospital in the fight against asthma disparities. In the healthcare profession, you can control your superpower and become an Asthma Champion!
One needs six skills and traits to be a successful Asthma educator.
The first thing you will need is patience. If you hate to repeat yourself, this is not for you.
Asthma is a complex, chronic lung disease that comes with a lot of information. Many people will often see you for asthma education, and no matter the setting, they will act as though they’ve never heard the information. Let’s not forget that our average attention span is getting shorter. You must go over the inhaler technique at every appointment visit. If you plan to get certified as an Asthma Educator, this is a question on the exam. Don’t even think about other potential answers on the test, like upping the meds or anything else. You must check the inhaler technique at every visit. You will be surprised when patients tell you the medication is not working and then show you how they’ve been taking the inhaler. Some folks are very creative. So, patience is very important.
Good Listening Skill
You need to be a good listener and engage patients in conversation. You can’t use quick yes or no questions; you must ask open-ended questions. I call it “Pass the mic,” where basically, you start the conversation with a question like “Tell me how your asthma has been lately? and “pass them the mic.” You are giving them the microphone for them to tell their story. This will help you connect the dots in how to help them; you must let them speak. We cannot develop assumptions or our own narratives just by looking at them because you never know until they tell their story. You must be a good listener. There are some people who don’t like to talk. Also, there are the long-winded ones that tell you everything under the sun. Learn how to steer the conversation and keep them focused. With time this becomes easier.
As an asthma educator, an attitude of turning lemons into lemonade is also a great skill. I say that because depending on the institution or where you’re working or who you’re providing the service for, you may have some resources now to give to your patients, and you may not have it the next day. So, you must be able to work with what you have at that moment and keep trying to find resources to give to your patients because you’re trying to help them peel back the layers of social and economic issues they’re facing. You may need to be able to produce lemonade with the lemons that you’re given sometimes. I’ve served some good lemonade with my lemons. I have faced some things in the past where I’ve had funding and where I didn’t have funding and was still expected to provide the service. Stay positive and complete tasks accordingly.
It’s also important to be empathetic. Meet people where they are in life. As healthcare professionals, there is a tone you do not want to have. We don’t want to have that judgmental tone. For example, “So you’re still smoking, Ms. Jackson?” This question and the tone behind it don’t encourage anyone to do better and may make the patient hold back information at future appointments if they come back at all.
As I mentioned, you want to allow the patient to talk, to really see where their head is at and see what their priorities are for that time. You may have a patient who you’ve been with for a while in case management, and maybe you see them in the clinic, in the community, or on the floors. You might have known a patient for a year or more, but you need to understand that their priorities may change every time you see them. So being empathetic is important because it’s about trust. It’s a partnership between you as the asthma educator and the patient/ client. They will open up to you, where you can help where possible.
Creativity is another great trait to have in this role. Asthma education is repetitive and can get boring, so you must be creative. You must put your personality into it. Imagine having to provide asthma education to a target audience like teenagers. I once had a project working with the State Department of Health, and it was for high schoolers and working with school-based health centers. In my head, that’s a hard population to work with because most of us know how difficult it is to hold the attention of teenagers. Can you imagine trying to provide asthma education, and they’re on the phone, just doing their thing? I just felt like handing them my sign-in sheet and asking them to sign, so I can get out of there (sign in sheets for each activity you host are important if you are reporting to funders.)
Instead of doing that, I teamed up with the teen pregnancy prevention program, and the program was successful. I let them have the sex education first and then slid in with my asthma education, and the kids were very engaged. “You can’t have sex if you can’t breathe” was the first message to get their attention. They were raising their hands and had a lot of questions. It didn’t make sense at the time, but it’s related and got them very interested. Some people were surprised at how the Asthma program partnered with the teen pregnancy prevention program, but I made it happen. I needed to implement the project fast and needed a foot in the door. The Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program partnership was thinking outside of the box and helped us tremendously.
Learn how to coach someone to be the best version of themselves. There are so many barriers for patients to become controlled when it comes to their asthma. They need someone that can enforce positive changes and can hold them accountable. It’s like, “I’m going to do this for you, but you need to go see your specialist.” “I will help set up the appointment for you to link to an attorney to help you with your housing issue, but you need to go to the appointment, let’s put an alarm on your calendar.” When the patient does anything, no matter how small it is, you give them a round of applause to encourage those little steps toward improvement to continue. It’s all about progress. So, if you are good at coaching people through things, this role is for you. These are the most important skills and traits you need to be a successful asthma educator. So, if you have them already, you’re good to go and consider taking the Asthma Specialist Exam to put those letters behind your name.
Want learn more from the Thee Asthma Lady? Click this link to purchase her book “ASTHMA CONTROL, PLEASE!: 9 Steps to Community Engagement in Asthma Awareness” on Amazon.