Medical professional taking vital signs

Step-by-Step Guide to Taking Vital Signs

Learn the procedures, steps, risks, and requirements for measuring vital signs.

Medical professional taking vital signs

Vital signs are a critical component of healthcare checkups and often provide clues to a patient’s overall condition. Not only can they be measured at home, but they are also taken in emergencies and in most medical facilities. By taking vital signs, healthcare professionals can detect or monitor various medical issues. Mastering this skill will lead to a much better experience for healthcare practitioners and their patients.

As you can see, vital signs are essential for most medical treatments. This fundamental skill may not sound like an exciting prospect for new healthcare professionals, but it is one of the most critical tasks they will learn.  Most Medical Assistants are trained to measure vital signs in a physician’s office. In addition, they often record vital signs before the physician arrives.

This article provides an in-depth guide on the art and science of taking vital signs, one of the most essential healthcare procedures for medical staff.

(Click here to see our full list of Medical Assisting duties and responsibilities).

Vital Signs Definition

What Are Vital Signs?

Vital signs are measurements of a person’s most basic bodily functions. Healthcare professionals routinely monitor four primary vital signs: body temperature, pulse rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure. Although blood pressure isn’t considered a vital sign, it is typically measured along with the others. Not only do vital signs lay a pattern for each patient, but they can be instrumental in detecting medical issues.

What Is the Purpose of Taking Vital Signs?

Vital signs give physicians a snapshot of what’s actually happening inside your body. They offer critical information about your organs, overall health, etc. This information provides physicians with tools to assess and treat your condition. Think about it this way: There’s a reason vital signs start with the word “vital.”

In general, vital signs:

  • Assess your wellbeing
  • Prevent misdiagnosis
  • Detect underlying health issues
  • Encourage lifestyle changes

How Long Does it Take to Measure Vital Signs?

Most vital signs can be measured in a matter of minutes. The four main vital signs that healthcare professionals usually monitor include body temperature, pulse rate, respiration rate (i.e., rate of breathing), and blood pressure. Although blood pressure isn’t always considered a vital sign, it’s typically recorded along with the others.

Who Can Take Vital Signs?

Doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, and other healthcare professionals can monitor vital signs. In addition, vitals are taken at home or in emergency situations. This means EMS workers like paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) must know how to take vital signs correctly and quickly.

Medical Assistants are also tasked with collecting and recording patient data before the physician sees the patient. These data points may include a patient’s temperature, blood pressure, pulse, respiration rate, weight, and height. They also collect information about current or previous conditions.

(Click here to learn how to become a Medical Assistant).

Female healthcare worker in a hospital hallway

Training Requirements for Vital Signs

Requirements for measuring vital signs can vary and depend on your location or profession. Aspiring nurses and other healthcare professionals will usually receive this training through their educational programs.

At Unitek College, we offer a Medical Assisting program that could give you a strong advantage when applying to nursing school or other healthcare positions. Our courses include topics such as patient assessment, stages of life, pharmacology, infection control, diagnostic imaging, office management, and more.

Taking Vital Signs Procedure

With these steps, you can start to learn more about the process of taking vital signs. Of course, like most skills, measuring vital signs will require time and practice to get it right. Remember to follow your facility’s rules and ask for help whenever necessary.

Vital Sign Steps

Here are some of the general guidelines that healthcare professionals should follow when taking vital signs:

Heart Rate

  1. Wash your hands thoroughly.
  2. Ensure that your patient is relaxed before you begin.
  3. Use the radial artery to find their pulse. You can find it on the inside of their wrist (closest to their thumb).
  4. Place your first and second fingertips—not your thumb—in a firm yet gentle manner on the patient’s wrist.
  5. Look at a clock or watch and wait for the second hand to hit the 12.
  6. Start counting the beats of their pulse.
  7. Count the patient’s pulse for 60 seconds or until the second-hand returns to the 12.
  8. While counting, remember not to watch the clock constantly but instead concentrate on the beats of your patient’s pulse.

Respiration Rate

  1. Wash your hands thoroughly.
  2. Put your fingers on the patient’s wrist (either side is fine).
  3. Count their breaths for one minute. Keep in mind that an inhale plus an exhale equals one respiration.
  4. Document their respiration rate. Include any relevant observations, such as wheezing, agitation, etc.

Body Temperature via Digital Thermometer

  1. Wash your hands thoroughly.
  2. Encase the thermometer mouth tip with a sanitary plastic shield.
  3. Press the button to turn on the thermometer.
  4. Put the thermometer under your patient’s tongue and ask them to keep their mouth closed.
  5. Remove the thermometer after it beeps to indicate that the reading has been completed.
  6. Record their temperature, including necessary information like the date, time, and method used.
  7. Always clean and sterilize the thermometer.

Medical Assistant taking vital signs

Blood Pressure via a Stethoscope, Cuff, or Aneroid Monitor

  1. Wash your hands thoroughly.
  2. Disinfect the stethoscope.
  3. Ensure that the blood pressure monitor is working correctly.
  4. Place your fingers on the underside of the patient’s elbow to locate their pulse (this is referred to as the brachial pulse).
  5. Wrap the deflated cuff snugly around the patient’s upper arm. This should be at least one inch above where you detected the brachial pulse.
  6. Place the stethoscope earpieces in your ears and put the diaphragm (disk) over the brachial pulse.
  7. Twist the knob on the air pump in a clockwise motion to close the valve.
  8. Pump air and inflate the cuff until the dial pointer hits 170.
  9. Turn the knob on the air pump counterclockwise so that you can open the valve to deflate the cuff.
  10. When the dial pointer falls, closely observe the number and listen for a thumping sound.
  11. Record the number displayed as the first thump is heard (systolic pressure).
  12. Record the number displayed as the last thump is heard (diastolic pressure).
  13. Deflate and remove the cuff from the patient.
  14. Document these results and include any unusual observations.


While most vital-sign measurements do not cause side effects, taking a patient’s blood pressure can cause temporary bruising or dizziness. However, if your patient doesn’t have an arm injury, an ill-fitting cuff is the primary culprit behind arm pain during a blood pressure reading.

Necessary Equipment for Taking Vital Signs

Typically, the suggested supplies for measuring vital signs include but are not limited to the following items:

  • Thermometers
  • Stethoscopes
  • Blood Pressure Devices
  • Combo Kits (Stethoscope + Blood Pressure)
  • Pulse Oximetry
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • Penlights

Potential Risks or Complications of Taking Vital Signs

It’s vital that you correctly record a patient’s vital signs. For instance, an incorrect measurement of a heartbeat or blood pressure could cause a misdiagnosis, leading to potentially fatal consequences down the line. So while taking vital signs might sound mundane, they are a critical component of the patient’s visit.

The word tips in wooden letter blocks

Pro Tips for Mastering the Art of Vital Signs

Here are some pro vital sign tips that may assist you in the future.

  • Ask for a little help: When it comes to oral temperature, it can be best to ask your patient to place the thermometer under their tongue. Why? If you place it, sometimes it won’t go all the way underneath the tongue, or you might jab them in a tender spot.
  • Know your temperatures: Remember that your temp readings will be different when you take an oral reading versus axillary, tympanic, or rectal temperatures. While rectal and tympanic readings usually range from 0.5 to 1.0 degrees Fahrenheit higher than an oral temperature, axillary and temporal readings are often 0.5 to 1.0 degrees Fahrenheit lower than an oral temperature.
  • Hydration, hydration, hydration: You’re more guaranteed to get an accurate reading if you take the pulse of a well-hydrated patient. If possible, ask your patients to hydrate before they come to their appointment.
  • A gentle yet firm touch is key: Although you don’t want to let your grip slip, you also don’t want to press too hard. Not only could that bruise your patient, but you could even obstruct their pulse. Instead, use just enough pressure to feel the pulse before you lighten your grip the littlest bit.
  • A brachial pulse needs a straight arm: When taking this type of pulse, ensure your patient’s arm is entirely straight. Doing so will help push the artery toward the surface. Place your fingers on their inner elbow and move outward by roughly one inch. Keep searching in small increments until you find it.
  • Be sneaky when counting respirations: It’s best to count a patient’s respirations without them knowing you’re doing it. This is so that they don’t change their natural breathing in any way. So, try to count their respirations immediately after taking their pulse. Keep your fingers on their radial artery, act as if you’re still taking their pulse, and count their respirations.
  • Good ears equal accurate blood pressure: In order to really hear the Korotkoff sounds associated with blood pressure, you must be able to tune everything else out. The best way to gain this skill is to practice on as many different types of people as possible. Look for a variety of ages, sizes, genders, etc. Maybe even bust out the cuff at your next party!
  • No funny business before the appointment: It’s ideal to measure a patient’s vital signs when they are at rest. They also should not have eaten, drank, smoked, or exercised in the 30 minutes prior to the appointment.
  • Cleanliness is everything: Always, always, always wash your hands before AND after you take a patient’s vital signs. You also must clean and sanitize each piece of equipment that has been used. For guidance, look at manufacturer instructions or check the rules of your facility before storing each piece in its rightful place.

Medical students in a hallway

Why Should Medical Assistants Learn How to Take Vital Signs?

Although many facilities employ nurses and other healthcare professionals, it can be very beneficial for Medical Assistants to learn how to take vital signs as permitted by state law. This is because nurses may not always be available in smaller settings or even larger ones like hospitals.

While measuring vital signs isn’t always a job requirement for MAs, it is a valuable skill that can lead to greater opportunities. Therefore, it would be advantageous for MAs or aspiring Medical Assistants to pursue the proper training. Once they are prepared to measure basic vital signs, an MA could become more indispensable to their employer and possibly gain greater responsibilities.

Start Your Career in Medical Assisting

The ability to take vital signs is an essential skill that aspiring Medical Assistants should learn for their careers. It’s also an essential medical practice for the assessment and well-being of patients.

Think about it: Vital signs measure your body’s basic functions and give doctors a window into the state of your health. Plus, they help physicians diagnose diseases, monitor the effects of treatments, determine medication dosages, and more. When Medical Assistants record a patient’s vital signs before each exam, they are logging a pattern of readings over time that will always be more meaningful than one measurement.

If you’re feeling inspired and want to pursue a career in medicine, Unitek College offers various healthcare programs, such as our Medical Assisting program.

Contact us today to learn more about our programs and tuition assistance options. Take the first step toward a rewarding future in healthcare!