Understanding the roles of the allied healthcare teamSeptember 5, 2014
Medicine is complex, and caring for patients involves more than just treating their diseases. It sometimes takes a team of medical professionals who work together to address patient needs, such as pain management, treatment, rehabilitation and emotional issues.
The medical field is made up of a variety of allied healthcare specialists who play different roles in caring for patients. If you are planning on becoming a doctor or nurse, you will likely be working closely with other medical professionals. It is helpful to have a clear understanding of what each allied specialty involves in order to coordinate appropriate patient services.
Physical therapy: Physical therapists work with patients in order to improve or restore physical functioning, such as strength or movement. Therapists evaluate and develop treatment plans to improve range of motion, balance, coordination, posture, endurance and mobility, such as getting out of a chair or walking. Physical therapists work with patients with all types of injuries and illnesses, such broken bones, loss of function due to an accident or chronic disorders, such as muscular dystrophy. Physical therapy may also be prescribed to decrease pain or for patients who have lost function due to prolonged bed rest. Physical therapy may be prescribed for patients both in acute care hospitals and at home.
Occupational therapy: Similar to physical therapists, occupational therapists work with a variety of patients in settings such as acute care hospitals, nursing homes and rehabilitation hospitals. Occupational therapists also help improve patients’ movement. The main difference between occupational and physical therapy is that occupational therapists focus on improving a patient’s ability to perform tasks associated with daily living. For example, an occupational therapist may help the patient improve movement and skills used during activities such as dressing, bathing and cooking. Patients recovering from a condition such as a stroke may benefit from a referral for occupational therapy.
Speech therapy: Speech therapists evaluate patients with various types of language deficits and disorders. For example, a speech therapist in a hospital may evaluate a patient who had a stroke to determine if they can swallow properly. Speech therapists also evaluate and treat patients who may be unable to speak or understand language due to brain damage from an injury, stroke or tumor. Being unable to communicate effectively can cause patients to become frustrated and depressed, which can interfere with their recovery from an illness. Addressing a patient’s speech problems as soon as possible is helpful for their overall wellbeing.
Respiratory therapy: Breathing problems are caused by everything from asthma to head injuries. Respiratory therapists assess and treat patients who are having difficulty breathing. Therapists administer medication, set up and monitor life support equipment such as ventilators, and teach patients how to manage chronic lung disorders. Respiratory therapists also insert breathing tubes into a patient’s airway in order to assist with breathing. As a doctor, you may also write orders to have a respiratory therapist perform diagnostic procedures, such as pulmonary function tests to measure the amount of air a person can blow out. If you are planning to become a nurse or doctor, you will work side by side with respiratory therapists who respond to cardiac arrests.
Recreational therapy: Recreational therapists provide therapy or treatment through various types of recreational activities. Recreational therapy is prescribed to help the cognitive, physical and emotional needs of patients. Recreational therapists first evaluate the patient to determine what the patient’s needs are and what types of activities the patient enjoys. Recreational therapy may be helpful with patients of all ages, but it may be especially beneficial for children. Participating in recreational activities may be fun for a child, and they may not resist like they would with physical or occupational therapy.
Clinical nutritionists: Nutritionists in healthcare facilities do much more than plan a menu. They work with individual patients to make sure they are getting proper nutrition based on their medical condition. As a doctor or nurse in a healthcare facility, you may need to consult with a clinical nutritionist in instances where patients are on a calorie-restricted diet or those who have dietary limitations due to their conditions. Nutritionists also work closely with patients who are unable to eat and are fed liquid through tubes due to their conditions.
Medical social work: As a physician or nurse, you may have a patient who would benefit from social work services. Social workers in healthcare facilities provide emotional support to patients and their families. For example, medical social workers may walk patients through the process of applying for medical benefits assistance. Social workers may work together with discharge planners to make sure the patient has somewhere to live when they are discharged. They may provide referrals for services, such as drug and alcohol counseling and grief counseling. Patients who are victims of violence, have drug problems or are homeless would all benefit from a referral to a medical social worker.
Chaplain services: Not all patients will have spiritual needs, but religion and spirituality may be important to some. Some patients who are coping with an illness may gain strength from their spirituality. Although they are not medical workers, hospital chaplains are trained to work with patients in a healthcare setting. Hospital chaplains can help patients deal with the stress of being hospitalized through counseling and prayer. Chaplains may also help family members deal with grief and difficult situations. On admission to the hospitals, patients are often asked if they have spiritual needs and would like a visit from the hospital chaplain.
Allied health team members often work closely together, and their services often complement each other. It is helpful to have an understanding of what is involved in each role on the team, and how a patient can benefit from different services. If you plan to become a doctor, you will be in charge of referring patients to appropriate services and coordinating care. Keep in mind that you can’t do everything yourself. By utilizing your allied healthcare team, you may be better able to meet the needs of your patients.