Define “Critical Thinking”

Respiratory therapists hear a lot these days about the need for them to engage in critical thinking to succeed in their careers. But what do those words really mean for bedside RTs? We asked Ellen Becker, PhD, RRT, RRT-NPS, RPFT, AE-C, professor of respiratory care at Rush University in Chicago, IL, three questions that may help them find the answer.

How would you define “critical thinking” in the context of respiratory care and why is it important for therapists to develop the ability to thinking critically about their patients and other aspects of their jobs?

Critical thinking requires use of the following three processes: reasoning, decision-making, and troubleshooting. In order to achieve each of these, you need a complete understanding of the topic where reasoning, decision-making, and troubleshooting occur. People who receive respiratory care services have specific needs that differ from one another. In order to identify the best respiratory care service for an individual, we need to assess the person’s circumstances, clinical needs, and use our reasoning skills to determine the best decision in partnership with the person. If we do not take time to understand our patients and their needs first, our clinical recommendations will not be effective.

Can you give us a good example of a situation in which you believe RTs can excel if they are able to demonstrate good critical thinking skills?

A major clinical challenge is to help individuals adhere to respiratory therapies at home. Lots of variables are at play, which makes this perfect for using reasoning, decision-making, and troubleshooting skills. Begin by exploring the individual’s understanding of their respiratory condition and how they think their respiratory care treatments will help them. Also learn if there are barriers to following the respiratory care plan at home. Using your reasoning skills, figure out which knowledge gaps, confusions, and misconceptions you need to clarify. Work in partnership with the individual to troubleshoot perceived problems. Consider how the treatment plan may need to be altered for the individual and use decision-making skills to consider whether you need to contact the medical provider and alter the respiratory care plan.

What can therapists do to polish their critical thinking skills?

Because critical thinking is a process and applies across all areas of respiratory care practice, respiratory therapists need to be reflective and continually update their knowledge. Reflect upon which content you use most and where you have knowledge gaps. Use the AARConnect Communities and other networking options to seek help with challenging scenarios and learn from others. Work on your active listening skills. Most patients give us cues when they are struggling. However, it is up to us to pick up on their cues to more deeply explore how we can help them.

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