Nova Scotia Health registered respiratory therapist leads national survey on the field’s pandemic experience

Claire Ward, registered respiratory therapist and quality leader with the Perioperative Services team.

Claire Ward is a registered respiratory therapist and quality leader with the Perioperative Services team at Nova Scotia Health’s QEII Health Sciences Centre, where she works as an anesthesia assistant in the operating room.

She is tasked with airway management, a critical element that keeps patients alive when unconscious during surgery and more recently in the treatment of COVID-19 patients.

“Since all COVID-19 patients admitted to hospital require the care of a respiratory therapist, there is a high risk of virus exposure given the demand for these professionals in treating patients,” said Ward.  

And the work is intense.

Given her experience at the height of the pandemic, Ward wondered how others in the field were coping with the pandemic given the demands of their job and the nature of their work. She was compelled to reach out to her counterparts across the country to find out their collective experience.

This is how she came to be leading the first national survey of respiratory therapists.

“We’ve been fortunate to hear the stories of the experiences of nurses and doctors,” said Ward, “But the voice of the [registered respiratory therapist] was not present in those accounts of front line workers caring for COVID-19 patients.”  

Working with Dr. Jillian Banfield, PhD from the IWK Health Centre and Paul Brousseau, registered respiratory therapist at the QEII Health Sciences Centre, they developed a questionnaire to survey respiratory therapists from across the country in order to capture their COVID-19 work-related experiences.  

“The Canadian Society of Respiratory Therapists helped support the dissemination of the survey, which has helped us to form a national snapshot of respiratory therapists’ experience” said Ward. “We did a poster presentation on what we found at the society’s conference last fall, and then went on to submit the survey findings to the Canadian Journal of Respiratory Therapy.”

The role of a respiratory therapist has been vital in the airway management and treatment of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. 

Working alongside the interprofessional practice team of nurses and physicians, they often found themselves at the bedside of a patient for hours, compared to pre-COVID times, where respiratory therapists would typically circulate between patients, working with the care team members between areas like the intensive care unit or emergency department.  

“Due to the restrictions required to prevent virus spread, movement between units is limited,” explained Ward. “Add to that the donning and changing of PPE between patient visits further limits movements of team members.”  

As a result, respiratory therapists were finding that they were caring for a single patient for longer periods of time. 

Ward sees it as a matter of all team members answering the call to care for people who are very ill during an extremely unique and difficult time. 

“We are called to see patients who are very ill and you take those concerns for them home with you, in addition to worrying about putting your own family at risk of the virus, because the intubation and extubating of patients is a high-risk activity in terms of virus spread.” 

Ward points out that from their national survey, almost 60 per cent of respiratory therapists have cared for a COVID-19 patient, and almost half have cared for one who was intubated.  

Emma Hart, a clinical team leader for the respiratory therapy department who works as part of the Emergency Airway Response Team at the QEII Health Sciences Centre and Dartmouth General Hospital, completed the national survey led by Ward.  

She explained that registered respiratory therapists have the unique experience of travelling the COVID-19 journey with their patients.  

“We see the patient when they arrive in emergency where we first care for them. We see them again when they are admitted to the [intensive care unit], and as they recover on the unit. Sometimes we see them when they are getting ready to be discharged from the hospital, and that is an amazing part of the job.”