Interested in helping others? Want to become a medical assistant?
One of the rewarding things you get to do as a medical assistant is to educate your patients about how to live a healthy and happy life. The first step in the process of helping patients is taking vital signs.
Vital signs offer clues as to how bodily health is progressing and if any issues need to be further treated. A medical assistant takes six vital signs at the beginning of each appointment.
What Are the Different Vital Signs a Medical Assistant Takes?
The different vital signs that a medical assistant takes at the first appointment and each additional appointment are blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and temperature. Height, weight, and oxygen saturation are measured, as well.
Vital Sign 1—Blood Pressure
A medical assistant takes a patient’s BP with a sphygmomanometer, a device that measures the rise and fall of a column of mercury as air is added to, or released from, a cuff wrapped around the upper arm. The medical assistant records results as millimeters of mercury, or “mm Hg.”
There are two measured blood pressure numbers, systolic and diastolic. Systolic is the pressure the heart exerts while beating, while diastolic is the pressure in arteries between beats. Systolic is considered the more significant number.
Vital Sign 2—Heart Rate
Arteries close to the skin’s surface pulsate each time the heart beats, creating a convenient way to measure heart rate without using a stethoscope. The most common way for a medical assistant to check heart rate is by placing the middle and pointer fingers on the inside of the wrist below the thumb. Other places on the body to measure heart rate include arteries located in the neck, groin, temple, and feet.
The number of beats is counted for 15 seconds. This number is multiplied by four to determine the heart rate. The normal heart rate for adults is 60–100 beats per minute, but children may have pulses as high as 140.
Vital Sign 3—Respiration Rate
The respiration rate is the number of times a patient breathes per minute. To determine the rate, a medical assistant counts the number of breaths taken for one minute, according to how many times the chest rises.
Vital Sign 4—Temperature
The normal adult body temperature is variable. A temperature of 98.6 F is only an average. The healthy range is between 97 and 99 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define a fever as 100.4 F (38 C) or higher. Temperatures up to 102.9 F are considered low-grade fevers Readings over 103 F are high-grade fevers.
A patient’s temperature can be taken in many different ways, each with a specific protocol.
Oral Temperature – taken by placing the thermometer under the tongue in the mouth
Axillary Temperature – taken by placing the thermometer in the armpit of the patient
Rectal Temperature – typically used on infants and young children
Aural Temperature – taken by placing the thermometer in the ear and typically used on young children and uncooperative patients
Forehead Temperature – taken by placing a temporal arterial thermometer on the forehead
As we have seen with the pandemic, taking a patient’s temperature on the forehead is an easy way to identify a high temperature without actually touching the patient. Since high temperature may be a sign of sickness, other tests may be ordered to diagnose the chief ailment of the patient.
Vital Sign 5—Weight
Medical assistants obtain weight in pounds using a standing scale. A few pounds gained or lost can be clinically significant, so precision counts. Weight is the main factor used to calculate body mass index (BMI). A patient with a high BMI can be more susceptible to disease and illness.
Vital Sign 6—Height
Height can be an important vital sign for both growing children and seniors who may be experiencing osteoporosis. A medical assistant uses a stadiometer to measure a patient’s height. A stadiometer is a device attached to a wall or weight machine, similar to a ruler. The medical assistant adjusts a sliding piece to rest on top of the head to determine the height.
Height is one of the two factors used to calculate BMI, a measure that better reflects the health of a patient’s body mass than does weight alone. Doctor’s use BMI to determine dosages for many different medications, as well.
Vital Sign 7—Oxygen Saturation
Oxygen saturation readings indicate how much hemoglobin is reaching the brain and peripheral tissues. Readings are taken with a pulse oximeter that clamps to the patient’s fingertip. The medical assistant records results as a percentage. Above 95 is normal.
What Is the Purpose of Taking Vital Signs?
Vital signs are a glimpse into the patient’s body that can’t be seen in any other way. Vital signs can influence a physician’s diagnosis and treatments. The first time a patient visits a physician’s office, the medical assistant will set the patient’s baseline. At each additional appointment, before surgery, after taking a medication, or for any other reason, taking vital signs will offer insight into the patient’s symptoms or recovery.
Significant changes in vital signs are often the first indicator of an acute illness. Specific patterns are recognized as indicative of certain conditions.
If blood pressure rises after taking a new medication, then the physician can identify the trend with vital signs taken at each subsequent patient exam. If a patient’s temperature is elevated, it may be a sign of infection. An abnormal heartbeat can signal the need for additional tests, like an EKG and Holter monitor.
Catching diseases and disorders early can save a life. Heart disease may be undetectable until blood pressure is elevated. Diabetes may be silent unless weight is monitored. For some diseases and disorders, vital signs may be the only signal that something is wrong.
What Diseases and Disorders Can Be Detected by Vital Signs?
Pulse rate can vary based on different factors. The physician will consider these factors when assessing vital signs including age, gender, physical activity, emotional state, metabolism, fever, air temperature, body size, and medications taken. There are a few common disorders that can be detected by taking vital signs.
High Blood Pressure
General high blood pressure is called hypertension. If caught early by taking vital signs, it can stop a patient from experiencing disorders like stroke, heart failure, and heart attack. An abnormal systolic reading is often an indication that the patient is at a high risk of cardiovascular disease. If the patient is above the age of 50, this risk increases.
Diabetes and High Cholesterol
Body mass index (BMI) is a good indicator of disorders like prediabetes. A medical assistant will take a patient’s weight at each visit to keep track of blood disorders that need additional testing to identify.
For those who are gaining weight, it is important to have blood tests done to identify symptoms of different disorders like diabetes, high cholesterol, and kidney disease. An elevated level of blood sugar or cholesterol is an indication of a need for medication. Prolonged high levels can result in heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure.
After taking a patient’s respiratory rate, the medical assistant can alert the physician to any abnormalities. The physician will follow up on this vital sign with a stethoscope to identify any respiratory problems. The patient may have asthma, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia, or other breathing problems that may require medication or a further visit to a specialist.
Vital signs are important for you to master during a medical assisting program. These can indicate the signs of illness in a patient, and early detection can save lives. This is an awesome responsibility and can be intimidating for some. However, it is very rewarding when you catch a disease or disorder in its early stages and help patients stay healthy.
Take the time to become a medical assistant and help your community fight for a healthier future.
Want to Learn More?
Did learning about how to become a medical assistant interest you? Ready for an exciting new career in the medical assisting field?
The Medical Assistant program at Hunter Business School prepares competent, entry-level medical assistants in the cognitive (knowledge), psychomotor (skills), and affective (behavior) learning domains required for professional practice.
The Medical Assistant program provides hands-on experience in a real medical setting where you can foster professional relationships with actual patients. Medical Assistant students spend 160 hours in an externship in a professional medical environment where they are supervised and taught in order to gain valuable on-the-job training.