Respiratory therapists care for patients who have trouble breathing—for example, from a chronic respiratory disease, such as asthma or emphysema.
What they do
Respiratory therapist’s patients range from premature infants with undeveloped lungs to elderly patients who have diseased lungs. They also provide emergency care to patients suffering from heart attacks, drowning, or shock.
Respiratory therapists typically do the following:
- Interview and examine patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders
- Consult with physicians to develop patient treatment plans
- Perform diagnostic tests, such as measuring lung capacity
- Treat patients by using a variety of methods, including chest physiotherapy and aerosol medications
- Monitor and record patients’ progress
- Teach patients how to take medications and use equipment, such as ventilators
Respiratory therapists use various tests to evaluate patients. For example, therapists test lung capacity by having patients breathe into an instrument that measures the volume and flow of oxygen when they inhale and exhale. Respiratory therapists also may take blood samples and use a blood gas analyzer to test oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
Respiratory therapists perform chest physiotherapy on patients to remove mucus from their lungs and make it easier for them to breathe. Removing mucus is necessary for patients suffering from lung diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, and involves the therapist vibrating the patient’s rib cage, often by tapping the patient’s chest and encouraging him or her to cough.
Respiratory therapists may connect patients who cannot breathe on their own to ventilators that deliver oxygen to the lungs. Therapists insert a tube in the patient’s windpipe (trachea) and connect the tube to ventilator equipment. They set up and monitor the equipment to ensure that the patient is receiving the correct amount of oxygen at the correct rate.
Respiratory therapists who work in home care teach patients and their families to use ventilators and other life-support systems in their homes. During these visits, they may inspect and clean equipment, check the home for environmental hazards, and ensure that patients know how to use their medications. Therapists also make emergency home visits when necessary.
In some hospitals, respiratory therapists are involved in related areas, such as diagnosing breathing problems for people with sleep apnea and counseling people on how to stop smoking.
Respiratory therapists are on their feet for long periods and may need to lift or turn disabled patients. Therapists work closely with registered nurses, physicians and surgeons, and medical assistants. Most respiratory therapists work full time. Because they may work in medical facilities, such as hospitals that are always open, some may work evening, night, or weekend hours.
How to become a Respiratory Therapist
Respiratory therapists typically need an associate degree, but some have bachelor’s degrees in respiratory therapy. Respiratory therapists are licensed in all states except Alaska; requirements vary by state.
Respiratory therapists need at least an associate degree, but employers may prefer applicants who have a bachelor’s degree. Educational programs are offered by colleges and universities, vocational–technical institutes, and the Armed Forces. Completion of a program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care may be required for licensure.
Respiratory therapy programs typically include courses in human anatomy and physiology, chemistry, physics, microbiology, pharmacology, and math. Other courses deal with therapeutic and diagnostic procedures and tests, equipment, patient assessment, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). In addition to coursework, programs have clinical components that allow students to gain supervised, practical experience in treating patients.
High school students interested in applying to respiratory therapy programs should take courses in health, biology, math, chemistry, and physics.
Respiratory therapists are licensed in all states
except Alaska, where national certification is recommended, although not required. Licensure requirements vary by state; for most states they include passing a state or professional certification exam. For specific state requirements, contact the state’s health board.
The National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) is the main certifying body for respiratory therapists. The Board offers two levels of certification: Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) and Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT).
The median annual wage for respiratory therapists was $61,330 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $44,850, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $86,980.
Employment of respiratory therapists is projected to grow 19 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. Growth in the middle-aged and older population will lead to an increased incidence of respiratory conditions such as pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other disorders that can permanently damage the lungs or restrict lung function. The aging population will in turn lead to an increased demand for respiratory therapy services and treatments, mostly in hospitals.
In addition, a growing emphasis on reducing readmissions in hospitals may result in more demand for respiratory therapists in nursing homes and in doctors’ offices.
Similar Job Titles
Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation Respiratory Therapist, Cardiopulmonary Technician and EEG Tech (Cardiopulmonary Technician and Electroencephalogram Technician), Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT), Clinical Coordinator of Respiratory Therapy, Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT), Respiratory Care Practitioner (RCP), Respiratory Therapist (RT), Respiratory Therapy Director, Staff Respiratory Therapist, Staff Therapist
Radiation Therapist, Cardiovascular Technologist and Technician, Diagnostic Medical Sonographer, Respiratory Therapy Technician, Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurse
The trade associations listed below represent organizations made up of people (members) who work and promote advancement in the field. Members are very interested in telling others about their work and about careers in those areas. As well, trade associations provide opportunities for organizational networking and learning more about the field’s trends and directions.
- American Association for Respiratory Care
- Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs
- The National Board for Respiratory Care
Magazines and Publications
When it comes to health, there’s nothing more fundamental than breathing. Respiratory therapists support all aspects of patients’ breathing and lung functions. Respiratory therapists work with patients to make sure they are breathing as comfortably as possible and receiving adequate oxygen… whether patients have a chronic lung disease… underdeveloped lungs at birth… or are recovering from trauma such as a heart attack or near-drowning. Respiratory therapists monitor and perform tests to assess patients’ lung capacity, and assist with treatments such as nebulizers -- devices that administer medications into the lungs. They also assist with placement of breathing tubes and with drawing arterial blood to assess patient oxygen levels. Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals. There, much of their time is spent operating mechanical ventilators for patients with breathing tubes. They also work in long-term care facilities. These healthcare professionals generally work full time, and may work evenings, weekends, and serve on call. Respiratory therapists generally need at least an associate degree in respiratory therapy, and a license to practice. Some employers prefer a bachelor’s degree.
Content retrieved from: US Bureau of Labor Statistics-OOH www.bls.gov/ooh,
CareerOneStop www.careeronestop.org, O*Net Online www.onetonline.org