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Why Nursing Professionals Must Understand the Fundamentals of Reading Vital Signs

Reading vital signs is essential in healthcare and provides crucial information about a patient’s physiological status and basic body functions. Although nurses frequently collect vital signs, more often, monitors and technology track this data continuously. Providers like nurse practitioners and physicians must be comfortable assessing and interpreting the recorded information to make medical decisions.

But conducting thorough vital sign assessments requires practice. The University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) online Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program gives graduates the skills to evaluate vital signs to safeguard patients’ lives and support colleagues. Courses in UTA’s program — like Holistic Health Assessment — ensure that graduates can identify the multiple variables contributing to healthy body functions.

Nursing professionals cannot fulfill advanced healthcare responsibilities without understanding the basics. According to Sotera, vital signs are basic, core elements of nursing care used for two main reasons: “to make sure that patients are healthy enough for surgery or other procedures and to keep track of recovery after surgery or other procedures.”

What Are the Basic Vital Signs and Normal Ranges?

Graduates of UTA’s program will be able to enter roles requiring complex healthcare duties. These include developing relationships that account for psychological and environmental factors, conducting and using research and theoretical principles, practicing evidence-based care and applying specialized knowledge in pharmacology, diagnostics, health assessments and more. Without an understanding in the basics of patient health, nurses cannot satisfy any of these responsibilities.

According to Medline, the primary vital signs include blood pressure, respiratory rate, pulse or heart rate and body temperature.

Vital signs change throughout the day and vary with age, sex, fitness level and overall health. However, there are generally recognized normal ranges. According to Healthline, normal vital sign ranges for the average adult while resting are as follows:

  • Blood pressure: 120/80 mm Hg
  • Respiratory rate: 12 to 18 breaths per minute
  • Pulse rate: 60 to 100 beats per minute
  • Body temperature: 98.6°F (37°C)

What Do Vital Signs Tell Healthcare Professionals?

Vital signs provide healthcare professionals with valuable information about a patient’s condition. By assessing vital signs over time and comparing them to a patient’s baseline, healthcare professionals can monitor changes, identify potential issues and evaluate the effectiveness of treatments. In addition, vital signs are used with other clinical assessments and laboratory tests to comprehensively understand a patient’s condition.

Therefore, providers need to interpret vital signs within the context of the patient’s medical history, symptoms and clinical presentation. Here are examples of how nursing professionals can apply vital information to the whole patient:

  • Blood pressure. Blood pressure indicates the force exerted by blood against the arterial walls. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is often associated with cardiovascular disease, kidney problems or other chronic health conditions such as diabetes or obesity. Conversely, low blood pressure can suggest dehydration, bleeding, shock and side effects from some medications and drugs.
  • Respiratory rate. Respiratory rate reflects the efficiency of breathing, including lung function and oxygenation. An increased respiratory rate can occur with fever, respiratory distress, anxiety or underlying respiratory conditions such as asthma or heart failure. A decreased respiratory rate may reflect sedation, opioid overdose or certain heart conditions.
  • Calculating the number of heartbeats per minute helps assess the patient’s cardiovascular health. A rapid pulse may signal fever, dehydration, anxiety, pain or arrhythmia. A slow pulse can be associated with some heart conditions, medication side effects or above-average athletic conditioning.
  • Body temperature. Abnormal temperatures can indicate the presence of an infection, inflammation or another underlying medical condition. For example, a fever may suggest an immune response to a viral or bacterial infection. In contrast, low body temperature may result from exposure to cold environments or medical conditions like hypothyroidism.

How Do Hospital Vital Sign Monitors Work?

As the use of technology increases, healthcare professionals must understand how to use hospital monitors. These electronic devices continuously track and display patients’ vital signs through small sensors attached to the skin or fingers. While the data collected may vary depending on the specific model and capabilities of the monitor, most report the four basic vital signs listed above. More advanced models may record the following additional metrics:

  • Electrocardiogram, or ECG, measures the heart’s electrical activity and rhythm.
  • Pulse oximetry, or SpO2, evaluates the blood’s oxygen saturation.
  • End-tidal carbon dioxide calculates the amount of carbon dioxide exhaled in each breath.

Whether collected manually or via a monitor, vital signs are fundamental to healthcare practice. Professionals use this real-time data to detect status changes, monitor trends, identify abnormalities and provide timely interventions to optimize patient care and safety.

Even though vitals offer a critical foundation for nursing, there is room to improve nursing equity with regards to reading vitals. According to Sotera, a 2015 study “concluded that the selection of appropriate vitals signs measured and responses … appears to rely on nurses’ clinical judgment or time availability rather than on policy-mandated frequency, with the prevalence of incomplete sets of vital signs potentially limiting the identification of deteriorating patients.”

Graduates of The University of Texas at Arlington’s online BSN program will be prepared to pursue nursing roles in several settings with a thorough understanding of the importance of reading patient vitals.

Learn more about UTA’s online Bachelor of Science in Nursing program.

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