Vital Signs: Online Course by University of Pennsylvania

Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body Is Telling Us is a free online course conducted by the University of Pennsylvania.

The course deals with heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, temperature, pain. What do these vital signs tell you about your body? Learn the basic physiology underlying the vital signs and how to accurately assess them.

Vital Signs: Online Course by UPenn


About the course

The vital signs - heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, respiration rate, and pain - communicate important information about the physiological status of the human body.

In this six-week course you shall explore the anatomy and physiology underlying the vital signs so that you shall develop a systematic, integrated understanding of how the body functions.

Relevant body systems are reviewed including cardiovascular and respiratory, followed by explanations of how the function of these systems affects vital signs.

The class shall discuss normal ranges, normal variants, and the mechanisms that underlie changes in the objective measurement of vital signs. The course also includes demonstrations of appropriate techniques for measuring vital signs in yourself and others.

Course Syllabus

Week One: Overview and Heart Anatomy

  • Overview and introduction to course
  • Anatomy of the heart
  • Pulmonary and systemic circulation
  • Heart valves and the one-way flow of blood through the heart
  • The cardiac conduction system and electrocardiograms (ECGs)
  • Cardiac output, heart rate, and pulse

Week Two: Blood Pressure

  • Anatomy of blood vessels
  • Systolic versus diastolic pressure -what are they are and what they mean
  • Mean arterial pressure -what is it and how is it regulated?
  • What keeps blood circulating through the body
  • Measuring blood pressure

Week Three: Metabolism

  • Anabolism versus catabolism
  • Overview of energy pathways in the cells
  • How metabolism relates to the vital signs
  • Metabolic assessment demonstration

Week Four: Temperature

  • Temperature regulation
  • Mean temperature
  • Assessing body temperature
  • Hyperthermia, hypothermia and fever

Week Five: Respiratory Rate

  • Pulmonary anatomy and review of pulmonary circulation
  • Capillary gas exchange
  • Metabolism and respiratory regulation
  • Assessing respiration and lung sounds

Week Six: Pain and Conclusion

  • Basic neurologic and sensory anatomy
  • Pain tolerance and pain threshold
  • Assessing pain
  • Understanding what pain is telling us
  • Course wrap up


The course is designed for a broad, general audience but may be particularly interesting for lay caregivers, those considering a career as a healthcare professional, individuals working in healthcare, those with an interest in personal health and fitness, or anyone who simply wants to understand how the body functions. A foundational background in biology and chemistry is beneficial but not required.

Course Sessions

March 16, 2015 - April 26, 2015

For further information and to register, click here.

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