Asthma Awareness Month: An Expert's Advocacy Guide

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach for asthma. Each patient should be cared for as an individual.”

Sanaz Eftekhari, Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Research for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA)

May is National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month. Supported by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), it’s set to coincide with the peak season for people with asthma and allergies, and it seeks to educate patients, family, friends, and advocates about these diseases. It’s also an opportunity to recognize the evolving role that respiratory therapists and other health professionals in treating asthma.

Asthma causes a swelling of one’s airways, which results in decreased airflow from nose and mouth to lungs. That decreased airflow can cause one to cough, wheeze, and experience difficulty breathing. It can, in some cases, be deadly: approximately ten Americans die from asthma every day, and many of those deaths could’ve been avoided with proper care and treatment.

Over 25 million Americans suffer from asthma, but not all suffer equally. Our understanding of asthma has changed significantly over the years, and so have the ways that health professionals treat it.

To get a look at the latest facts and research around asthma, and how respiratory therapists play a role in working with asthma patients, read on.

Meet the Experts: Sanaz Eftekhari and Douglas S. Laher

Sanaz Eftekhari

Sanaz Eftekhari

Sanaz Eftekhari is the Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Research for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). Over her 13 years with AAFA, she’s served in a wide variety of roles and connected with stakeholders across multiple industries, including patient advocacy organizations, pharmaceutical companies, medical societies, research firms, and government agencies.

Eftekhari has also co-authored several of AAFA’s key research reports, such as My Life With Asthma and Asthma Disparities in America, which have been shared with researchers, medical experts, and policymakers to emphasize patient needs for treatment options, advocacy, and support.

Douglas S. Laher

Douglas S. Laher MBA, CAE, CMP, RRT, FAARC

Douglas S. Laher is the Chief Operating Officer at the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC), where he provides strategic oversight for all functional divisions and service lines. He received his BS in respiratory therapy from the Ohio State University and his MBA from Ashland University.

Prior to his term as COO with AARC, Laher had 16 years of service with Cleveland Clinic, where he worked as a registered respiratory therapist (RRT), a respiratory clinical instructor, and director of respiratory care. Laher has also served on the board of directors of both the Ohio Society for Respiratory Care and AARC.

The State of Asthma Today

“One really important evolution in the thinking about asthma is that it can look different from one person to another,” says Sanaz Eftekhari, Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Research for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA).

“Asthma is increasingly recognized as a condition with considerable heterogeneity, rather than a single uniform disease. This evolving knowledge promotes new approaches to asthma care that are more patient-centered and individualized than ever before.”

Today, asthma can be classified into phenotypes, or categories, which denote differences in clinical presentation, physiological processes, or responses to treatment. By identifying these different subtypes of asthma, and recognizing the diversity of asthma profiles, researchers and clinicians can achieve better outcomes with their patients. These advances have been paired with the development of new biologic agents, which are critical for the targeted treatment of persistent airway inflammation that’s resistant to high doses of inhaled steroids.

Health Disparities in Asthma

But recognizing the individualized nature of asthma also requires one to go beyond the purely medical. According to AAFA’s Asthma Disparities in America report, the burden of asthma continues to fall disproportionately on racial and ethnic minority populations. The disparities are particularly evident when considering mortality and hospitalization: Black individuals are nearly three times as likely to die from asthma than white individuals, and five times more likely to make an asthma-related emergency room visit.

“There are steps that can be taken immediately, such as making sure that cultural and language-related differences are accounted for when caring for people with asthma, and steps that take larger, systemic movement, such as addressing the racial wage gap,” Eftekhari says.

To address these disparities, the AAFA report recommends 69 strategies that span policy, interventions, research, and partnerships. Some key areas include expanding programs for home-based assessments and interventions, developing training for healthcare professionals on social determinants of health, and offering personalized and culturally appropriate action plans.

“The future of asthma care is personalized,” Eftekhari says. “As we learn more about the science, we are able to develop novel treatments to target each patient’s specific clinical and biological needs. Similarly, as we understand more about social and structural determinants, we can ensure that asthma care accounts for and accommodates an individual’s environment, experiences, and preferences. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for asthma. Each patient should be cared for as an individual.”

The Evolving Role of Respiratory Therapists

“The respiratory therapist’s understanding of asthma has grown tremendously since 1984,” says Douglas S. Laher, Chief Operating Officer at the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC).

“The historic role of the respiratory therapist was to provide symptomatic control for the asthmatic in the hospital following an exacerbation. However, in addition to treating patients in the hospital, today’s respiratory therapist focuses on outpatient treatment with a focus on preventative education.”

For those working and living with asthma, the Covid-19 pandemic, which affects the upper and lower respiratory systems, has been particularly vicious. Respiratory therapists have been working hard to educate their patients and their communities about how one can differentiate between asthma symptoms and Covid-19 symptoms. They’ve also been transitioning areas of their practice into telehealth format. But as respiratory therapists continue to treat both Covid-19 and asthma patients, the profession is under strain.

“Respiratory therapists have been, and still are, stretched extremely thin, with a focus on caring for the most critical patients,” Laher says. “Much of their time is spent in the intensive care units caring for patients on mechanical ventilators. Burnout is a very real concern for the respiratory therapist. They’ve witnessed death at levels that are incomprehensible. The healthcare system must focus efforts on resiliency and providing respiratory therapists with tools to better manage their mental health.”

For all its havoc, the Covid-19 pandemic had a silver lining: the rapid scaling of telehealth capabilities for respiratory therapists and asthma patients. By cutting down on barriers to access and distributing healthcare resources more effectively, telehealth can lead to a continued increase in preventive services and patient education. But in order to realize the full potential of telehealth in respiratory therapy, further advocacy is needed.

“The American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC) is focusing tremendous resources in Washington DC to expand access for patients with asthma and other cardiopulmonary disorders to the respiratory therapist,” Laher says.

“Telehealth is going to be a mainstay in the future of healthcare delivery, and the AARC wants to ensure that the respiratory therapist remains at the tip of the spear when it comes to providing value-added care to the asthmatic. Expanded access to the respiratory therapist in conjunction with telehealth services will be a game-changer for the patient suffering from asthma.”

A virtuous loop of increased access, personalization, research, and treatment options can usher in a new paradigm in asthma care, where over 25 million Americans will be able to breathe easier and enjoy more equitable health outcomes.

“There will be endless opportunities for those interested in researching treatment strategies, as it is the research conducted by healthcare providers like respiratory therapists that provides scientific, evidence-based direction on the care we provide to asthmatics,” Laher says. “The role of the respiratory therapist will grow exponentially in the research, diagnosis, treatment, and education of asthma.”

Resources for Asthma Awareness Month

To learn more about asthma, and the people working to better understand and treat it, check out some of the resources below.

  • American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC): With more than 47,000 members worldwide, AARC is the leading professional association for respiratory care, bringing together both respiratory therapists and allied health practitioners. Their advocacy hub has information on AARC coalitions, state and federal policies, and other resources of interest to respiratory professionals. Find out how you can get involved here.
  • Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA): Founded in 1953, AAFA is dedicated to saving lives and reducing the burden of disease for people with asthma and allergies through support, advocacy, education, and research. Their asthma hub has detailed information about the triggers, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of asthma. Find out more ways to get involved here.
Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about emerging topics in medical technology, particularly the modernization of the medical laboratory and the network effects of both health data management and health IT. In consultation with professors, practitioners, and professional associations, his writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best. For, he’s interviewed leaders and subject matter experts at the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).