Checking vital signs is among a medical assistant’s core responsibilities. The data they gather helps doctors make the best treatment decisions. But what do vital signs mean, and why are a patient’s temperature, pulse, respiratory rate, and blood pressure important enough to take at every visit? It’s because they reflect both illness and wellness.
Which Vital Signs Does a Medical Assistant Check?
Medical assistants check four primary and three secondary vital signs. The primary vital sings include:
Vital Sign #1: Temperature
Body temperature is measured in one of six ways:
Temporally – temporal thermometers measure heat over the temporal artery using infrared light. Kid-friendly and contact-free, you’ll place the probe near the patient’s forehead. Temporal readings take just seconds but are less accurate than other methods and generally used only for screening.
Orally – oral temperatures are taken under the tongue. Suitable for alert, adult patients, oral thermometers can’t be used on young children or patients with breathing disorders who can’t keep their lips sealed.
Highly accurate, digital models are easy to use with disposable sanitary covers. For accuracy, patients shouldn’t eat or drink ten minutes before the reading.
Aurally or Tympanically – aural thermometers measure eardrum temperature with an infrared light ray. More accurate than temporal thermometers and suitable for all patients, they’re popular with pediatricians. Scar tissue from repeated infections, however, can lower accuracy.
Rectally – rectal thermometers are laser accurate but risky to use. Inserted improperly, they can tear delicate tissue and cause bleeding. Medical assistants rarely take rectal readings unless absolute precision is necessary.
Axillary – axillary temperatures are taken in the armpit, or axilla, with an oral thermometer. It’s the least accurate of all methods but safer than other options for some patients. With the invention of temporal and aural thermometers, the axillary method is rarely used but it’s still taught so that students are aware of all options.
Vital Sign #2: Pulse
Pulse is checked by counting vibrations in large blood vessels near the surface of the skin. The most common site for readings is over the radial artery in the wrist. Other sites include the femoral artery in the groin, the brachial artery near the elbow, the dorsalis pedis artery on top of the foot and the carotid artery in the neck.
Pulsations are counted for 15 seconds and multiplied by four to equal a 1-minute reading. For a patient with dysrhythmias, you may be asked to take a full 60-second reading or a so-called apical pulse, counting heartbeats over the lower tip of the heart with a stethoscope.
Pace and character are also noted when measuring pulse. Is it weak or strong and regular or irregular?
Vital Sign #3: Respiratory Rate
The respiratory rate is the number of breaths per minute. You’ll observe patients inhaling and exhaling for 30 seconds and multiply the result by two.
Fear, discomfort, and anxiety can cause unintentional changes in breathing patterns, so respirations are best observed while patients are unaware.
Vital Sign #4: Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the heart and artery walls. It’s checked with either a digital manometer or manually with a stethoscope and sphygmomanometer that displaces a column of mercury, the manual method is more accurate.
Reported as a systolic reading when the heat beats over a diastolic measurement when the heart is relaxed, high or low readings reflect a wide range of health disorders.
Secondary Vital Signs
Secondary vital signs are no less important than primary vital signs overall, but they mean less for some patients than others and may not be routine in all practices. Controversial, some doctors may not ask for them regularly.
Still, they paint a more complete picture of patient health and have been increasingly accepted throughout the medical community.
Vital Sign #5: Height
Height stays stable once we reach adulthood, but changes as we age can indicate disease. Height is also one of the two-part calculation for Body Mass Index (BMI), a better approach to body composition than weight alone.
Checked at least annually with patients standing tall against a vertical slide rule, using a consistent technique is critical for accuracy. If, for example, you check someone’s height without shoes at one visit, it’s how it should be measured every time.
Vital Sign #6: Weight
Weight is the second part of the BMI calculation. Used to determine drug dosages, assess risk factors and monitor the effects of treatment, the technique matters less than that it’s identical every time.
Vital Sign #7: Peripheral Oxygen Saturation
Peripheral oxygen saturation, SpO2, is measured with a fingertip device known as a pulse oximeter. Readings reflect the amount of oxygen in the circulatory system, 95-100 percent is normal. Meters also display a pulse reading.
Generally accurate, circulatory problems and cold fingers can affect the readings. For doctors, it’s rarely diagnostic, it’s just one piece of a more complex clinical puzzle.
What is the Importance of Checking Vital Signs?
Vital signs are meaningless measurements without a qualified healthcare provider to interpret them. In the right hands, they offer volumes of information.
Viral infections cause body temperature to rise in most age groups. When a bacterial infection causes a fever, however, it usually means it’s systemic, a dangerous condition known as sepsis. A high temperature is the doctor’s first clue that someone has a serious infection.
Thyroid disorders can also cause minor changes in temperature. One reason medical assistants take vital signs at every visit is to establish a baseline, what’s normal for individual patients.
The average adult pulse is 60-100 regular beats per minute. Marginally higher or lower readings can be normal, but significant changes in heart rate indicate conditions from dehydration to heart dysrhythmias. Doctors may order an EKG for a patient with an irregular pulse.
The body is programmed to want oxygen. If someone is breathing too deep or too fast, it could signal a lung condition.
Heart disease also causes changes in respirations. Combined with a pulse and an SpO2 measurement, readings help doctors hone in on the cause.
Hypertension is known as the silent killer. It rarely produces symptoms which is why it’s measured at every visit. Over time, an upward trend suggests primary hypertension or secondary high blood pressure due to an underlying illness. Blood pressure readings help doctors evaluate everything from kidney to cardiovascular function.
Changes in height are rare, but in some patients, it may indicate bone loss in the vertebrae. Known as osteoporosis, it can be treated if caught early.
Weight gain can mean someone is eating too many calories, but it also reflects how well the body is maintaining its fluid balance. In patients with heart or kidney failure, a pound lost or gained can be the difference between life and death. Weight and BMI are also used to calculate many drug dosages.
SpO2 readings tell doctors how well the body is perfusing, the rate at which oxygen is delivered to the tissues furthest away from the heart. It demonstrates the efficiency of the cardiovascular system is working and helps physicians tell whether breathing and circulatory issues are related to heart or lung disorders.
How Do You Learn to Check Vital Signs?
Medical assistants learn to check vital signs in school. Vocational programs cover both practical skills and theory. In the classroom, you’ll learn why checking vital signs is important and what they mean. As a medical assistant, you’ll not only check vital signs, but you’ll also help patients with their home monitoring programs.
You’ll learn the latest vital sign techniques from seasoned instructors while practicing on peers and then on patients during clinical experiences. By graduation day, you’ll be confident in your skills.
You’ll be busy as a medical assistant, and everything you’ll do will matter. However, when it comes to improving your patients’ health, nothing matters more than taking accurate vital signs.
Want to Learn More?
The objective of this Medical Assistant training program at Peloton College is to prepare the student for employment as an entry-level Medical Assistant performing administrative, clerical, and clinical duties within the health care field.
The mission of Peloton College is to be the premier provider of hands-on training and education by providing students and graduates with the necessary skills to secure occupational careers. Contact us today to learn more.