Vital Signs are Vital to Therapy Practice

As I read about and hear more stories of young athletes collapsing during sporting events and reflect on February being American Heart Month, I also think about the times I should have done a better job asking medical history questions (those that weren’t already checked on the history form) and taking baseline vitals for my young, healthy athletes and non-retiree patients, not just the retirees.

One of our primary roles as therapists is to thoroughly examine our patients, which includes screening for conditions that may negatively impact their response to their plan of care and interventions. Part of our examination that is commonly overlooked is taking vital signs.

Vital signs include blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and if indicated, body temperature. These measures help us determine the patient’s overall health and well-being. Vitals can help us become aware of serious events such as a possible heart attack and sudden drop in blood pressure. Vitals also help us determine which treatment protocols to follow, provide critical information needed to make appropriate adjustments during patient care, and confirm feedback on our treatments performed.

So why don’t we take blood pressure readings on all patients that present with a history of hypertension? Why don’t we check heart rate for every patient that performs therapeutic exercise?

Maybe we think taking vitals is too time consuming. Maybe we have become complacent with certain aspects of our patient care. Or maybe another healthcare practitioner told us taking vitals in NOT within our scope of practice. Wrong!

The Guide to Physical Therapist Practice 3.0 considers taking vital signs as essential to therapy practice. Physical therapy scope of practice clearly describes conducting a systems review in order to identify potential and existing problems, of which, aerobic capacity/endurance, circulation, ventilation and respiration/gas exchange are but a few of the listed areas to conduct tests and measures. Occupational therapy scope of practice describes addressing the physical, cognitive, etc. to support a patient’s ability to engage in everyday life activities that affect health, well-being, and quality of life. Speech-language pathology (SLP) scope of practice states SLPs use data to guide clinical decision making and determine the effectiveness of services.

As we are looked upon to become more autonomous therapy practitioners, taking baseline vital signs on every new patient and appropriate monitoring of those vital signs is essential to avoid negligence and provide our patients the safest care possible.

So dig out your clinic’s blood pressure cuff, pulse oximeter and heart rate monitor. Protect yourself and your patients by gathering those vital signs…you just might save a life!

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