Asthma is a chronic lung condition that can be successfully treated. Still, much of that success depends on how well the patient understands their disease and adheres to their doctor-prescribed medications and lifestyle changes.
That’s where asthma educators come into play. These professionals serve as physician extenders, testing, monitoring, and educating patients about the disease and how to keep it in check. Respiratory therapists make great asthma educators, and those who have taken on the job find it rewarding.
Two RTs who work in this area offer insights into the qualities you’ll need to get one of these jobs.
Positioned for success
Tim Ballweg, RRT, CPFT, AE-C, works within the primary care setting at the Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin, providing patients with pulmonary function testing and patient education and participating in developing their asthma plans.
“My respiratory therapy education background positioned me for the job as an asthma educator,” he said.
He believes therapists need excellent communication skills to work as asthma educators. In particular, they also need a strong foundation in respiratory care in general and asthma. Chronic disease management skills are a must as well, as is a solid knowledge of pulmonary function tests such as spirometry and FeNO.
“These characteristics are all strategically important to pull together a comprehensive patient experience where the patient has an asthma plan and complete understanding of its use,” he said.
Ballweg suggests therapists seek experience working in a hospital setting before going for a job as an asthma educator. Experience in a pulmonary function lab or a primary care setting would also be helpful. Those are the components that will help you develop the foundation you need to be effective in this area of care.
It would also be good to speak with others working in this setting before taking the plunge.
“Reach out to other therapists and learn from their experiences,” he said.
Marilyn Walton, MHHS, RRT, AE-C, RPSGT, is the program education coordinator for asthma at Akron Children’s Hospital Mahoning Valley in Ohio. She got her start in the area at another local hospital, where she decided to take a leap of faith and leave acute care for the asthma education arena.
“I recall applying for the asthma education coordinator position but having doubt about leaving my acute care position that included both neonatal and adult intensive care,” she said. “The medical director talked to me about how much I could accomplish outside of the acute care walls — working with families, schools, and community, and even at the policy-making level. Though I often miss acute care work, I’m so glad I took that job. Boy, did I expand my professional horizon!”
Today she oversees a staff of certified asthma educators who act as liaisons for children with asthma and their families, other health care providers, and other caregivers. They work closely with personnel at schools and child care facilities to ensure a safe and healthy learning environment. They reach out to community groups to advocate for children with asthma. Walton also serves on the strategic evaluation planning team for the statewide asthma plan in Ohio.
She has this advice for anyone interested in becoming an asthma educator —
- Thorough knowledge of your field: What you teach will not hold any weight with your audience if you don’t have strong core knowledge in your topic area.
- People skills: You work with many different people in various scenarios, no matter what venue. If you can’t relate to people well, you won’t make a good teacher.
- Patience: While you may have good general people skills, patience is a trait of its own, whether it is spending time trying to earn the trust of your clients, convincing them that the education is important, working through the bureaucracy of policy change, or simply trying to teach a young parent with a crying child when they have no other support.
- Empathy: Be compassionate and keep a sense of humor (appropriate, of course), but don’t take it personally. People often say things in frustration or under stress. Stay focused on the task at hand without being judgmental.
- Passion: Love what you do. If you are passionate about your job, you’ll more likely do a great job and achieve your goals. As a patient educator, we’re often faced with difficult circumstances, whether it be a family that is resistant, noncompliant, or dealing with other life struggles that trump your efforts to teach them. If you are passionate about your job, you’ll develop the stamina to resist giving up!
Like Ballweg, she recommends therapists work in acute care for a while before making the switch as well, and she also believes it’s essential to seek out additional training, such as that available through the AARC and other groups.
“I thought I knew plenty about asthma working as an acute care therapist,” she said. “But I learned so much more by taking an asthma educator course.”
This is what it’s all about
What rewards come with the job? Walton shares a sweet story about providing asthma education for a young child with autism to illustrate.
“There were about eight very involved family members in the room,” she recalled. She provided the necessary education but avoided close contact with the child since she was aware that he didn’t do well with strangers. She credits the family members for keeping him calm throughout the session. It all went well, and she would have been pleased with just that.
But then the child really made her day.
“As I was leaving, I thanked everyone,” Walton said. ”Much to my surprise, as I was walking out, this precious child approached me, and without making any eye contact, gave me a huge hug, said thanks, and went back to his toys. That’s what it’s all about!”
The AARC’s Asthma Educator Certification Preparation Course can provide you with the skills you need to take on a job in asthma education and prepare you to sit for the exam leading to the AE-C credential at the same time.