Respiratory care department being created

We've all heard about nursing shortages. But another type of health care provider -- the respiratory therapist -- also is in critically short supply. In fact, one out of 10 respiratory care positions in South Texas goes unfilled.

Why is that important? If your newborn needs a ventilator to breathe, a respiratory therapist may be monitoring the infant's condition. If you suffer an asthma or allergy attack, a respiratory therapist may administer therapy. Or if you're battling emphysema, pneumonia or bronchitis, you may require daily treatments from a respiratory therapist. These professionals are trained to spot any change in a patient's condition, as well as administer immediate, lifesaving aid.

To help ease the shortage of respiratory therapists, the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board has approved the creation of a new respiratory care department at the Health Science Center . The department will offer a baccalaureate degree in respiratory care, with the first classes tentatively scheduled to start in the fall of 1994.

"Respiratory therapists are in short supply across the state," said James Van Straten, PhD, dean of the School of Allied Health Sciences. A recent survey by his office showed more than 10 percent of respiratory care positions went unfilled in 118 Texas hospitals.

"We called every treatment facility in our region," he said. "At the time of the survey, we found a vacancy rate in excess of 10 percent. Administrators told us it was taking them, in most instances, two to three months to fill vacancies. During those months, the treatment facilities were going short-staffed."

Respiratory care providers perform special tests to determine how well a patient's lungs are working. Other duties include administration of medical gases, aerosols and humidification.

The Health Science Center will offer a four-year baccalaureate degree program in respiratory care, Dr. Van Straten said. Students will satisfy the general educational requirements of the program at another college or university, while all professional requirements will be accomplished at the Health Science Center and at affiliated health care institutions in San Antonio.

The timetable for a 1994 start-up includes a year of planning, during which a department chairman and other faculty will be hired. A proposal approved by the Coordinating Board calls for 12 new students to be enrolled in the department in 1994, increasing to 26 new students enrolled in 1998.

The university's existing allied health programs - physical therapy, occupational therapy, clinical laboratory sciences, emergency medical technology, dental laboratory technology and dental hygiene - are all accredited at the highest levels. The new respiratory care department will benefit from this strong foundation, Dr. Van Straten said.

The Health Science Center's anesthesiology department also will interact closely with the new department, he said.