A respiratory therapist (RT) is a healthcare worker who treats people with breathing or cardiopulmonary problems. Among their patients are premature infants whose lungs are underdeveloped and children and adults who have lung diseases such as cystic fibrosis, asthma, and COPD. After interviewing and examining a patient, and upon consultation with a physician, he or she will develop a treatment plan.
This plan may include removing mucus from a patient's lungs or inserting a ventilation tube into the patient's windpipe and connecting it to a machine that delivers oxygen. A respiratory therapist also delivers emergency care to heart attack and drowning victims or to people in shock. Some RTs work in home care. In this capacity, one sets up ventilators and other life support equipment and instructs caretakers in their use.
Respiratory therapists held about 113,000 jobs in 2010. Most work in respiratory care, anesthesiology or pulmonary medicine departments of hospitals. Others work in nursing care facilities. Some are employed by home health care agencies.
One must have, at least, an associate degree to work as a respiratory therapist. Most programs that train people to work in this field offer bachelor's degrees as well and often employers favor job candidates who have graduated from those programs.
Respiratory therapy programs can be found at colleges, medical schools, vocational schools, and in the Armed Forces. Respiratory therapy students will take many science-oriented courses including human anatomy and physiology, physics and microbiology. They will also learn about therapeutic and diagnostic procedures, patient assessment and medical record keeping and insurance reimbursement.
Most states in the US—as of this writing Alaska is the only exception—license respiratory therapists. Although licensing requirements vary by state, usually one must have graduated from a program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC), earning at least an associate degree. Use the Licensed Occupations Tool from CareerOneStop to find out what the licensing requirements are in the state in which you plan to work.
In addition, a candidate for licensing must pass a national or state examination. The National Board for Respiratory Care administers the Certified Respiratory Therapist Exam (CRT) and the Registered Respiratory Therapist Exam (RRT). Some states require passing one or both of these tests. RTs from states that don't require these exams may sit for them as well since some employers either require certification or prefer job candidates who have it.
in order to do his or her job, an RT must have certain personal characteristics. Working one-on-one with sick patients and their worried families requires compassion and excellent interpersonal skills. Those interpersonal skills also help facilitate the teamwork that is common between RTs and other healthcare workers.
One must be detail oriented and be able to quickly and effectively solve problems. Patience is also a necessary skill as one may have to spend long periods of time working with a single patient.
As a respiratory therapist in a clinical setting gains experience, he or she can move from providing general care to caring for critically ill patients. Those with advanced degrees may become supervisors. RTs who are employed by health care agencies may become branch managers. Some respiratory therapists eventually teach in RT programs.
Employment of respiratory therapists is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2020. It is listed among the fastest growing occupations that require only an associate degree.
Respiratory therapists earned a median annual salary of $55,250 and median hourly wages of $26.56 in 2011.
Use the Salary Wizard at Salary.com to find out how much respiratory therapists currently earn in your city.
A Day in a Respiratory Therapist's Life
On a typical day a respiratory therapist will:
- treat a wide range of patients from infants through the elderly
- consult with physicians and other healthcare staff to help develop and modify individual patient care plans
- provide complex therapy requiring a great deal of independent judgment, e.g. caring for patients who are on life support in hospital intensive care units
- evaluate patients by performing limited physical examinations and conducting diagnostic tests including those that measure lung capacity tests and acidity and alkalinity of the blood
- treat patients by using oxygen or oxygen mixtures, chest physiotherapy, and aerosol medications
- connect patients who cannot breathe on their own to ventilators that deliver pressurized oxygen into the lungs
- perform regular checks on patients and equipment
- supervise respiratory therapy technicians
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, Respiratory Therapists, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/respiratory-therapists.htm (visited January 18, 2013).
Employment and Training Administration, US Department of Labor, O*NET Online, Respiratory Therapists, on the Internet at http://online.onetcenter.org/link/details/29-1126.00 (visited January 18, 2013).