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Jeff Ward and Karen Ahlsten in front of a respirator machine.

Jeff Ward and Karen Ahlsten

Inhaling theory and practice

eNews, January 26, 2006

Respiratory care is one of the fastest growing allied health fields. Physicians rely on respiratory care practitioners to assist with the diagnosis and treatment of patients who have asthma, emphysema, spinal cord injuries, heart-lung transplants, major trauma, and other serious conditions.

"Our work has become increasingly sophisticated," says Jeff Ward, director of the respiratory care program at Mayo School of Health Sciences in Rochester. "We used to evaluate lung function by having patients blow into a bag or a can submerged in water. Mechanical ventilators were either iron lungs or they used washing machine technology. Today we perform very complex procedures, and most of the diagnostic testing and life support devices we use are supported by computer technology."

As respiratory care expanded in scope, so did the demands on practitioners, who traditionally entered the workforce with a two-year associate degree. In 1999, Ward and his colleagues at Mayo asked respiratory care managers in the five-state region what the practitioners of the future would need to know. Managers said they were looking for professionals with strong clinical skills and higher-level skills in communications, management, and research. "Students needed core courses in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences," says Ward. "The associate degree was no longer enough."

The power of working together In fall 2004, the University of Minnesota's College of Continuing Education (CCE) began offering bachelor of applied science (BAS) majors in respiratory care and radiation therapy in partnership with the Mayo School of Health Sciences. The programs combine upper-division University academic courses with professional classes and clinical experiences at Mayo Clinic.

CCE created a core of 25 semester credits for both majors. Included are courses in clinical pharmacotherapy, research design, and writing, as well as "big picture" subjects like health care finance, delivery, management, and administration. Also required is a course on teaching in the health care setting. Some classes are taken online, so students can schedule them around their clinical work.

"Each institution is doing what it does best," says Faith Zimmerman, health sciences program director for the University of Minnesota, Rochester. "Mayo is renowned for its clinical faculty and training. The U is well known for the quality of its undergraduate education. The resulting synergy means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

After finishing the first year of the BAS program, Karen Ahlsten knew she had made the right choice--even though respiratory care was never a field she had considered. "Respiratory care allows you to become involved with patients," she says. "When you suction them or assist with a tracheotomy, you know you've really helped. The program allows you to learn in different ways. The online courses work well for my learning style and the U of M professors are very available to us."

Ahlsten also praises the hands-on clinical training aspect of the program. "It's amazing how much you learn in the first year," she says. "You go from knowing very little to putting tubes down someone's throat or setting them up on a ventilator."

Like Ahlsten, Emily Nelson enjoys the combination of academic courses and clinical training. "The BAS degree will help us be more well-rounded," says Nelson, who's pursuing the radiation program. "Employers will look at it and say, 'This person went the extra mile.' They'll know that we've learned from the best people."

To learn more about the U's Bachelor of Applied Science program, visit CCE or call 612-624-4000.