Breathing oxygen is something we all do involuntarily and rarely think about. But what if all of a sudden you couldn’t get enough oxygen with each breath and needed to rely on supplemental oxygen to survive? This is a reality for many patients suffering from ailments such as COVID-19, pneumonia, COPD, asthma, cystic fibrosis, emphysema, lung cancer, etc. According to the American Lung Association, any illness that attacks the lungs, causes chronic lung disease, or makes it harder to breathe may result in the patient needing supplemental oxygen either temporarily or long-term to survive. Therefore, having a proper oxygen delivery system in place is critical for these patients. 

Oxygen delivery systems can be found throughout hospitals, home care facilities, and even rehabilitation facilities. In larger facilities, these systems are usually installed during construction and set up to provide direct oxygen lines to patient rooms via copper piping that runs from the main oxygen tanks to the oxygen outlets in the rooms. In home care settings, the oxygen may be delivered to patients using smaller, portable oxygen tanks the patients can move around with. Each of these systems ultimately provides direct oxygen delivery to the patient. However, as simple as this process may sound, there are other components that play an important role in safely administering oxygen.

Whether a patient is receiving oxygen from a bulk system or from a portable/home system, there must be a device known as a regulator connected to the main tank. The regulator’s purpose is to reduce the overall pressure of the gas being delivered. Since the oxygen coming out of these main tanks is highly pressurized, oxygen regulators help bring the gas pressure down to a PSI (pressure per square inch) reading that is safe for patient use. Many times regulators will have a set PSI, which delivers a consistent gas pressure while in use, or they can be adjusted based on the application needs. Once the regulator is set up and the PSI level is safe, the next step is delivering oxygen to the patient; but how do you administer the appropriate level of oxygen?  

To administer oxygen safely, the required flow rate or LPM (liters per minute) must be determined by the patient’s healthcare provider. Once the appropriate LPM rate is known, an oxygen flowmeter must be connected either to the regulator or to the built-in delivery system. The flowmeter will allow the user to adjust how much flow a patient receives based on the healthcare provider’s recommendation. For example, some patients may only require 3 LPM of oxygen while others will need a higher flow rate such as 10 LPM if they are having a harder time getting the oxygen to their lungs. The flowmeter can then be hooked up to the oxygen tubing, which is usually connected to a nasal cannula or face mask that the patient will breathe/inhale the gas from. To see if a patient’s oxygen levels are responding to the flow rate, a pulse oximeter can be used to measure the level of oxygen in the blood. The flow rate may need to be adjusted by the healthcare professional based on the oximeter reading. 

As you can see, the importance of oxygen delivery systems and all of the components cannot be understated. These systems are essential to ensuring patients receive the life-saving oxygen they need. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen just how important oxygen is to infected patients’ survival and how critical these systems are to making sure each patient has access to oxygen. By understanding how these systems function, we can better treat patients on supplemental oxygen and ensure their safety in the process.