As a Respiratory Therapy Student, you’ve definitely got a lot on your plate. There are certain skills and competencies that are required for you to learn during clinical rotations.

While it may be difficult, this is the perfect time to master new skills because you will have the opportunity to watch and learn first-hand. This is extremely valuable when it comes to applying what you’re learning about in the classroom to real-world scenarios. 

In this article, we’re going to break down some of the skills that are required for all Respiratory Therapy Students to learn during clinical rotations. By making yourself aware of each skill, your chances of actually learning them will improve dramatically. This will not only benefit you now but for years to come. So if you’re ready, let’s get started. 

1. Learn How to Recommend and Deliver the Appropriate Medications

As a student, you’ll learn all about pharmacology and the different types of respiratory medications during classes and lectures. During clinical rotations, you’ll be expected to know which drugs are appropriate to give to certain patients.

Is the patient wheezing? Do they have excessive secretions? You must learn which drugs to administer, the precise dose, and the appropriate frequency. Hopefully, our guide on pharmacology can help, if you’re interested. 

2. Learn and Abide by Infection Control Guidelines, Standards, and Procedures

This one is important as well. Is your patient in isolation? If so, what personal protective equipment (PPE) should you wear in order to protect yourself and the patient?

Do you know the difference between contact precautions vs. airborne and droplet precautions? This is a skill that you must know.

Also, you should know what types of equipment are disposable and which ones are reusable. Finally, you should know the difference between disinfection and sterilization, and how to decontaminate reusable equipment.

3. Implement Appropriate Medical Charting and Documentation

In the medical field, there’s an old saying that goes like this:

“If it doesn’t get charted, it never happened.”

You will be required to learn how to document your findings properly within the patient’s medical record. The details of this process can vary by facility, but the underlying principles are the same. You must develop an understanding of the universal do’s and don’ts when it comes to charting. 

4. Differentiate Between the Abnormalities of the Sternum

This comes easy with experience while working as a Respiratory Therapist. But as a student, clinical rotations can provide you with a great opportunity to learn how to perform an assessment of the chest and thoracic region.

What do you notice while looking at the patient’s sternum? Does it stick out externally or does it cave in? What does this mean?

These are things that you must look for as a Respiratory Therapist and this is a skill that you will need to develop. 

5. Know About the Appearance of Digital Clubbing

What exactly is digital clubbing? What does it look like, and when a patient has it, what does it mean patient?

Digital clubbing is a term that describes when the tips of the fingers are enlarged. It’s a sign that is common in patients with COPD and/or obstructive lung conditions. Do you know what? This is something that you will need to look for and recognize in your patients.

6. Differentiate Spinal Abnormalities and Their Effects on the Respiratory System

What is lordosis? How about kyphosis or scoliosis? Do you know what they mean? What are their differences and how do they affect the respiratory system?

You may not have realized it, but spinal abnormalities can have major effects on the cardiopulmonary system. As a Respiratory Therapist (or student), you must learn how to recognize these abnormalities and know what it means in regard to treatment modalities.

7. Learn the Proper Technique for Palpating and Inspecting the Chest

Chest inspection is a skill that must be performed routinely as a Respiratory Therapist. Simply by palpating a patient’s chest, you can learn a lot about their condition by listening to the sounds that are made.

During clinical rotations, you must learn and develop the necessary skills and technique for chest palpitation. of your patient is something Respiratory Therapists do during an everyday assessment.

8. Differentiate Between the Various Tissue Percussion Notes

Percussion is the act of contacting the tissue of your patient. As a Respiratory Therapist, in general, this typically occurs over the area of the lungs.

But what do the different sounds mean? What is hyperresonance? How about resonance, flatness, or dullness? You will be required to learn about each sound that is and what disease it likely represents. 

9. Learn How to Properly Use a Stethoscope

I’m sure you have an idea of how to use a stethoscope, but do you know how to do it the right way? Can you perform auscultation properly so that the sounds you hear are accurate and reliable?

As a student during clinical rotations, this is the perfect time to master lung sounds and the art of auscultation. This includes knowing the most common types of stethoscopes and their advantages and disadvantages as well. If you’re in need of a high-quality stethoscope, you can check out our detailed guide and reviews.

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10. Learn About the Various Respiratory Patterns

As a Respiratory Therapist, you must know and learn about all of the abnormal and irregular breathing patterns. What is tachypnea? How about Cheyne-stokes and Kussmaul’s breathing? What are the causes?

Again, you must be able to recognize the differences between each abnormal respiratory pattern.

11. Learn About and Understand Blood Pressure

What is the normal blood pressure range? What does it mean if a patient has high blood pressure or low blood pressure? What is the treatment types?

You must be able to describe the various factors that influence blood pressure such as the pumping mechanism, resistance elasticity, and viscosity of the cardiovascular system. During clinical rotations, you will have the opportunity to assess a patient’s blood pressure and recommend therapy according to their readings.

12. Learn How to Assess a Patient’s Work of Breathing

What is work of breathing? How do you know if a patient is having difficulty breathing? What are the signs of dyspnea? Are they working harder than normal? Are they using their accessory muscles?

If so, why and what does this mean? How should you proceed? This is something you will learn and be required to know as a Respiratory Therapist.

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13. Understand the Significance of the Characteristics of a Patient’s Pulse Rate

You will be required to know and understand the normal pulse ranges for both adults and children. Also, you must know the causes of abnormal pulses and how rhythm and strength play an important role as well.

For each patient that you come in contact with, you will be required to check their pulse and heart rate. During clinical rotations, you should focus on understanding the common causes of abnormal pulse rates.

14. Learn About the Significance of Measuring a Patient’s Body Temperature

What is the normal range for body temperature? What does it mean if a patient is running a fever? How would their treatment methods be adjusted?

If a patient’s body temperature in increased, it could mean that an infection is present. As a Respiratory Therapist, these are things that you must consider and act upon when caring for your patients. 

15. Learn How to Operate a Mechanical Ventilator

And last but most certainly not least, you must develop a basic understanding of how to operate a mechanical ventilator. This is, by far, one of the most important skills that is required of a Respiratory Therapist.

For most students, the subject of mechanical ventilation tends to be the most difficult due to the complexities of the modes and settings. One of the best ways to develop an understanding of this topic is working with ventilator machines in person during clinical rotations. 

You can only learn so much in the classroom. The easiest way to truly learn is with a hands-on approach in the real world.

Not to worry, you won’t be thrown to the wolves. They won’t expect you to operate the machine on your own from the beginning. However, with supervision, you will have to opportunity to make adjustments to the ventilators settings and see how the patient responds.

Again, this is one of the most important aspects of clinical rotations and is something that should not be taken for granted. 

Final Thoughts

So there you have it. Clinical rotations definitely aren’t easy. As a Respiratory Therapy Student, there is a lot that is expected of you.

You will be required to learn each of the skills that were listed for you here in this article. Not to worry, I have faith that you can do it.

Sure — we’ve established that clinical rotations can be tough. With that said, they can also serve as one of the most beneficial ways to learn and master the information that you need in order to develop into a successful Respiratory Therapist.

And that, my friend, is what it’s all about. So my advice is to watch and learn closely and make the most out of the amazing opportunity that you have during clinical rotations. Thanks for reading and as always, breathe easy my friend.


The following are the sources that were used while doing research for this article: