What is CoARC and How is it Advancing RT Educational Levels?

image of medical students walking down hall

Educational programs for all legitimate health care professions, from medicine on down, are overseen by accrediting bodies that set standards aimed at ensuring the education received by students in those programs meets the needs and requirements of the medical community.

In respiratory care, that accrediting body is the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC).

Transparent information

“Accreditation provides the public with transparent information about the quality of respiratory care programs,” said Ellen Becker, PhD, RRT-NPS, FAARC, chair of the AARC’s Education Section. “This is essential for both prospective students and the profession.”

“The standards and minimum outcome thresholds put in place by CoARC ensure all accredited RT programs deliver a fair and credible educational product,” said Georgianna Sergakis, PhD, RRT, FAARC, chair-elect of the AARC’s Education Section.

“CoARC annual reporting mechanisms and the accreditation process assure that each program provides the documentation and outcome evidence to demonstrate compliance with the current CoARC standards,” Dr. Sergakis said.

All stakeholders have input

CoARC Associate Executive Director Shane Keene, DHSc, RRT-NPS, explains how the process works. “CoARC, in order to maintain the highest accreditation standards, receives input from its constituency, collaborating organizations, and peer accreditors during its review process,” Keene said.

While some standards are changed in real time as they are found to be obsolete, dated, or no longer reflective of current practice, others are changed to safeguard the public, protect the continuity of the respiratory therapy workforce, and ensure that students are treated fairly and are receiving quality educations.

“The respiratory therapy community can expect that a thorough assessment of the current standards, with input from all stakeholders, will occur,” Dr. Keene said. “Changes will be made when needed … to reflect the most current practice, technological advancements, and the overall evolution of the profession.”

All CoARC accreditation standards are reviewed every five years and the next cumulative review is scheduled to take place in 2020.

Moving toward the bachelor’s degree

One standard that recently grew out of the due diligence CoARC practices as it reviews its standards is the new standard calling for all new respiratory care programs to award degrees at the bachelor’s level or higher.

As Dr. Becker explains, the move reflects the marketplace.

“Presently, programs offering associate degrees are struggling to fit all the required respiratory care content into their curricula,” she said. Since several states have already posed limits on the number of credits that can be offered by associate degree programs, the only way to increase credit hours is to increase degree level.

“Moving to a bachelor’s degree level or higher allows programs to teach all the content well with more credits,” Dr. Becker said.

However, the standard, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2018, does not affect current associate’s degree programs, which will continue to operate as usual as long as they continue to meet CoARC standards.

Enter degree advancement accreditation

So the question remains: How can RTs who graduate from those accredited associate’s degree programs earn a BS or MS in RT? The answer lies in another CoARC standard on degree advancement (DA).

Essentially, DA programs are those aimed at meeting the needs of practicing respiratory therapists with an RRT who, having already completed an accredited respiratory care program with an entry into respiratory care professional practice degree, want to further their education to the bachelor’s or master’s level.

DA programs can be offered by accredited postsecondary institutions, by a consortium of institutions that includes one member that meets the definition of an accredited postsecondary institution, or in facilities sponsored by the U.S. military.

Many of these programs are being offered online to facilitate degree completion by working therapists.

“The CoARC just granted provisional accreditation to the first degree advancement programs at our last board meeting,” Dr. Keene said. “The University of North Carolina at Charlotte had two programs — one a bachelor’s and the other a master’s level program. Florida National College also had a program receive degree advancement accreditation at the baccalaureate level.”

Several other programs have applied for DA accreditation as well and will go through site visits soon, added Dr. Keene.

Raising the bar

CoARC Board Member Joe Coyle, MD, FCCP, advocated for these programs in a recent edition of The Coalition Chronicle, published by the Coalition for Baccalaureate and Graduate Respiratory Therapy Education.

“For the respiratory care profession, accreditation of DA programs allows for an educational ladder that allows motivated individuals to advance in the profession at their institution and to move on to other opportunities with recognized competencies and credentials,” he wrote. “It will provide graduates who raise the bar in the clinical environment and prepare therapists for advanced roles in clinical care that will enhance patient quality of care outcomes and increase the value of the profession in the overall health care workplace.”

Dr. Keene agrees. “Degree advancement is the fastest way to move toward having most of the RT workforce reach the baccalaureate level,” he said. “The CoARC believes that degree advancement accreditation will continue to grow and assure that programs provide quality education outcomes that will benefit graduates in achieving their career goals.”