Learning to Measure Vital Signs: It’s Harder than it Looks

medical assistant training programStudents in the medical assistant training program at the Harris School learn the importance of vital signs

Have you ever noticed that every time you go to the doctor, a medical assistant or nurse measures your vital signs? Have you ever wondered why this is important? Your vital signs are very important because they measure what’s happening with your vital organs, such as your heart and lungs. Changes in your vital signs help to alert medical practitioners to health problems you may be having.

How do professional medical assistants learn to take vital signs? While most medical assistants make it look easy, there is more to getting trained than you might think. To begin, when students first learn to take vital signs, they learn certain practices that apply to all procedures. For example, they learn to:

  • Have all equipment clean and prepared before the patient visit
  • Greet the patient, confirm their name, and make them feel comfortable
  • Wash hands and wear gloves before any patient contact
  • Explain the procedures that are being done
  • Be aware of the normal ranges for all vital signs that are being measured, according to the age, weight, and gender of patient
  • Record the results properly, using correct medical terminology
  • Know where to note irregular results and to whom to report them
  • Make arrangements for patients whose vitals cannot be measured in the standard fashion due to special medical needs
  • Observe patient privacy and HIPAA rules

In addition to these practices, there are steps to learn for each of the different vital sign measurements. For example, taking the patient’s temperature involves knowing the normal temperature ranges, as well as being able to work with a variety of thermometers such as oral, rectal, axillary, and tympanic. Taking a patient’s pulse may look easy, but it’s an important responsibility, because the medical assistant not only records the beats per minute, but also takes note of the regularity and strength of the pulse, and needs to alert the physician if there are any concerns.

Measuring blood pressure is probably the most difficult of the vital sign measurements to learn. Most often, blood pressure is measured with a stethoscope and a blood pressure cuff. The medical assistant needs to know how to locate a patient’s brachial pulse, which is found on the inside of the elbow, as well as determine the correct placement and tightness of the cuff. Once the cuff is placed, the practitioner needs to know how to operate the valves and air pumps, and must understand the gauge on the blood pressure cuff. At the same time, the medical assistant must listen for the thumping sounds that indicates the systolic and diastolic pressure.

As with the other vital signs, knowing the normal ranges for the patient’s blood pressure is important so that the physician can be alerted if the readings are abnormal. Blood pressure readings are significant, because high blood pressure can contribute to health problems such as heart disease, hardening of the arteries, heart failure, and stroke.

Taking a patient’s temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure are important first steps every time a patient visits physician. So next time a medical assistant takes your vital signs, remember that it’s important to your health—and it’s harder than it looks!

The Harris School of Business offers a medical assistant training program at eight campuses located in New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut.  If you are interested in learning more about this program or other career-focused programs, such as dental assistant training, or medical billing and coding training, please visit the Harris School home page, or fill out our online information form.