Career Guide: Respiratory Therapy Career Path

First and foremost, students should contemplate choosing an occupation before enrolling in college. Health care careers are, in particular, challenging and stressful, so it is recommended to inquire and search thoroughly about all of its considerations before making a decision. Let’s take respiratory therapy, for example. These practitioners work in both traditional and non-traditional settings. There are specific requirements set before successfully landing a job as a respiratory therapist.

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A projected 19 percent increase in employment for respiratory therapists is projected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for the period between 2019 and 2029, higher than the 13% average for all occupations during this period. Increasing numbers of middle-aged people and older persons are expected to contribute to a higher incidence of respiratory diseases like COPD or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia. Lung damage from these respiratory disorders or restriction of lung function can be permanent.

A respiratory therapist should consider the following factors when deciding where to study and what to do as a career: personal preferences and attributes, school considerations, professional obligations, employment environment, licensure and credential, and career outlook. The following information about respiratory therapy may be helpful for students pursuing a career in this field.

Here’s everything you need to know about Respiratory Therapist:

What Is A Respiratory Therapist?

As a certified medical professional, a respiratory therapist specializes in delivering medical care to your lungs. High-tech medical equipment, including mechanical ventilators, is the domain of their expertise. Physicians and nurses cooperate with respiratory therapists. Medical facilities with which they practice include emergency rooms, hospitals, maternity departments, and therapy institutions. There’s also an option to open a private clinic as a respiratory therapist.

Respiratory therapists can improve efficacy and outcomes for people with lung conditions such as emphysema, asthma, pneumonia, and other illnesses. Therapists can make individualized breathing recommendations, provide exercises, and assist patient’s improvement.

How to Become A Respiratory Therapist

First, earn the degree! At the Associate and Bachelor levels, you focus on the fundamentals of respiratory therapy. However, government legislation and changes in requirements shift to ensuring all entry-level respiratory therapists gain a bachelor’s of science degree for their job positions. The student must attend a respiratory therapy program full-time at most colleges and universities.

Most of these institutes offer all-day programs from morning until afternoon. Those who must work full-time jobs might not be able to attend. Students that prefer to finish an associate degree can pursue evening scheduled courses in respiratory therapy. But the best option for such students would be an online degree. Also, there are advanced programs available to respiratory therapists with an AS who wish to study for a master’s degree and become more prepared for future advancements in the field.

Education Requirements For a Respiratory Therapist

Applicants for respiratory therapist positions must have an associate’s degree, although employers may prefer candidates with Bachelor’s degrees. Institutions of higher learning, vocational institutes, and the Armed Forces provide these educational programs. To become licensed, you may have to complete a training program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care. How long is respiratory therapist school? Well, it depends on the program.

The courses, which are typically encountered in respiratory therapy programs, include biology, chemistry, human anatomy, psychology, physiology, math, physics, microbiology, and pharmacology. Respiratory therapy programs also deal with studies about patients, therapeutic and diagnostic tests, and training about cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). 

There are clinical components essential for students’ learning, like gaining practical and supervised experience while handling patients in existing medical facilities. High school students should brush up on their skills and knowledge about health, science, math, chemistry, biology, and mathematics if they wish to partake in the career path towards respiratory therapy.

Credential Examinations

The NBRC administers two national exams that must be challenged by graduates of a respiratory therapy program to gain access to the workforce. A low and a high passing score can be obtained in the first test, called the Therapist Multiple Choice Exam (TMC).

Although the student has a relatively low score, she or he will be awarded the Certified Respiratory Therapist national credential. She or he can apply for a CRT license if the state now grants this license. The candidate will qualify to take the Clinical Simulator Exam (CSSE) with a high score, which will then apply for the national certification Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT).

Therapy licenses are issued based on credentials earned at national conferences. The State of Alaska is the only one that does not require a state license. Some universities and colleges are accredited to award Bachelor’s degree, Associate’s, and Master’s degree programs that are statewide recognized all over the U.S.

Skills Required to be a Respiratory Therapist

The Holland Code framework indicates that respiratory therapists have interests in the Building, Helping, and Thinking concern areas. Making or fixing practical things is one focus of the Building interest area. Research and investigations into natural laws are the primary focus of the Thinking interest area. Those with the Helping interest area tend to help, serve, counsel, and teach others.

Take a career test to see if you fit a career as a respiratory therapist. Suppose you don’t know which of these following Interest Areas are suitable for you.

Respiratory therapists should possess the following specific skills:

A compassionate attitude

Patients undergoing treatment need respiratory therapists that can give emotional support and sympathize with their needs.

Problem solver 

Respiratory therapists need solid problem-solving skills. They are responsible for assessing patients’ symptoms, consulting with other health professionals, and then recommending and administering appropriate treatments.

Particularly keen on detail

An eye for detail is essential for respiratory therapists to give patients the right treatments and medications and keep a close eye on various aspects of patient care.

Patient

The respiratory therapist may work long hours with patients who require extra care. You should have the patience to withstand the different behaviors of your diverse patients. 

Adept communication and interpersonal skills

Respiratory therapists must be keen on following the instructions of a supervising physician. You must be able to communicate openly while discerning the proper protocols implemented by your team. 

Skilled in math and the sciences

To determine the correct medicine dose for a patient, respiratory therapists must know anatomies, physiology, and other sciences.

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Respiratory Therapist Duties & Responsibilities

In general, respiratory therapists must be able to:

  • Medications and equipment should be taught to patients.
  • Check equipment and patients regularly
  • Manage respiratory therapy technicians​
  • Work with people of all ages, including infants and the elderly.
  • Develop and modify patient care plans with physicians and other healthcare personnel.
  • Care for patients requiring intensive care in hospitals. This involves performing complex therapy requiring independent judgment like caring for patients who are on life support.
  • Examine patients, performing limited physical exams, and conducting diagnostic tests, such as checking lung capacity and checking the blood’s content for acid or alkaline.
  • Patients with COPD or pulmonary fibrosis can be treated using breathing treatments, chest physiotherapy, and aerosols.
  • Put patients in need of pressurized oxygen into ventilators that deliver the liquid into their lungs.

A respiratory therapist will develop a therapy plan for a patient based on their interview and examination and consultation with a doctor. The patient’s mouth or nose may be cleaned and a breathing tube inserted into his windpipe and connected to an oxygen machine. A respiratory therapist can also provide emergency care to people suffering from heart attacks, accidental drowning, and even shock. Some traveling respiratory therapists work in-home care settings to install respiratory equipment and instruct caretakers in its application.

Benefits of Earning Your Respiratory Therapy Degree Online

A respiratory care therapist employed in the field alongside those aspiring to one can benefit from an online degree program. Some colleges and universities prepare professional Certified Respiratory therapists and Registered Respiratory Therapists by offering career advancement programs. There are management opportunities, advanced clinical practice opportunities, and graduate school programs provided too. 

You can elevate your current status and skills by enrolling in such a robust curriculum geared towards advancing respiratory therapy practice and research. You can develop a deeper and more grounded understanding and know-how about health care operations, leadership, technology, project management, and logistics. All these and more are attained through online programs. And you will have the flexibility of completing the required number of hours for courses at your pace while being employed in your full-time work. 

How long does it take to become a respiratory therapist?

It generally takes about two years to meet the modern requirements for an R.T., such as an R.A. degree and a state license. A variety of flexible and accelerated programs are available. Aspiring Respiratory Therapists who can commit more time to school have Bachelor’s degree options as well.

Types of Respiratory Therapist Degrees

R.T.s can specialize in any one of several different types of respiratory therapy.

1. Adult Respiratory Therapy

A hospital, outpatient, or home setting is usually the setting for adult respiratory therapy. Routine care for chronic diseases, including cystic fibrosis, may be provided by an R.T. The treatment of emphysema is often included in respiratory therapy for adults. Sometimes R.T.s direct programs for adults to help them quit smoking.

When the lungs recover from surgery or a traumatic event, pulmonary rehabilitation helps restore breathing capacity. Treatment may be provided by a community-based therapist (RT) outside of the hospital. Also, they spend time and work in sleep labs to diagnose and treat sleep apnea.

2. Geriatric Respiratory Therapy

Our lungs also age as we do. Older people often benefit from respiratory therapy because it helps them breathe more efficiently. People over 65 are likely to encounter respiratory tract infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and bronchial pneumonia. Geriatric respiratory therapy takes place in hospitals, daycare centers, or at the patient’s home.

3. Emergency Respiratory Therapy

Respiratory therapy like this is usually provided in hospitals. They help patients recover from heart surgery and lung failure, as well as with emergency room cases. In addition to performing complicated surgeries, some R.T.s treat the pneumonia of patients. A big part of EMR requires ventilators. R.T.s must be able to administer life support to patients who need it.

4.Pediatric Respiratory Therapy

R.T.s are specializing in pediatric cardiopulmonary care focus on newborns and young children. Sometimes they work in hospitals where they look after patients in intensive care units, including newborn babies. Children and adolescents who have asthma can seek outpatient care from some pediatric respiratory therapists.

Children or newborns are often transported by ambulance or helicopter by pediatric emergency transport teams at hospitals. Respiratory Therapists and Registered Nurses typically make up these teams.

Concentrations of Specializations of Respiratory Therapist Degrees

1. Pulmonary Diagnostics

A respirator specializing in lung function testing may enjoy the diagnostic aspects of respiratory healthcare. A pulmonary function laboratory or physician office employs therapists to measure lung function and assist physicians in determining whether a person has a lung disease and, if so, what kind.

Many therapists in this area hold certifications in pulmonary diagnostics and certifications in respiratory therapy and respiratory therapy. 

You might be able to obtain a Certified Pulmonary Function Technician or Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist credential, for example. 

2. Management

Many respiratory therapists rise the ranks to fill managerial positions in their departments. Staffing management, budget preparation, and hospital policies and procedures are just a few of the duties of respiratory care managers. 

Most managers enter the field after having worked as a staff therapist for numerous years. This is a promotional opportunity for existing R.T. in medical or other institutions. Some of them have earned the Advanced level RRT license, and many have a bachelor’s degree in business or health care administration.

3. Home Care

Some patients with respiratory diseases such as emphysema receive health care from respiratory therapists in their homes. Therapists provide home care equipment to people at home, usually through companies or hospitals that can support such devices. It is beneficial for R.T.s to get out into the community and observe patients in their homes.

Many home care therapists need experience working in hospitals or other health care settings since the field requires deciding and responding quickly to emergencies. Most home care agencies prefer that you hold the advanced level of the RRT credential. 

4. Polysomnography

Respiratory therapists are increasingly being requested to specialize in sleep medicine technology, which has evolved into a complex healthcare field over the past 30 years. Sleep R.T.s usually work for sleep laboratories, during which time they often perform the night shift. 

Although general respiratory therapists can move into polysomnography, they will need additional education and training to learn the 77 diagnoses and symptoms and use the polysomnographic equipment safely and effectively. 

Individuals who enter sleep hold the Certified Resuscitation Technician (CRT) and Registered Resuscitation Technologist (RRT) credentials but may also desire to earn the Registered Polysomnographic Technician (RPSGT) credential.

5. Education

Not only must respiratory therapy educators educate future practitioners, but also provide educational resources to practicing therapists. A respiratory therapy educator instructs or teaches courses at community colleges, universities, and hospitals and is employed as a continuing education coordinator for respiratory therapy departments at hospitals.

Nearly all respiratory therapist educators entering the specialty will have held the advanced level RRT credential as a respiratory therapist in the past. Teachers who hold advanced degrees in education are typically considered favored candidates for promotion in many schools.

6. Case Management

The transition of a hospitalized patient to a home healthcare setting usually is taken care of R.T.s. These R.T. case managers coordinate all aspects of the patient’s medical needs to recover at home more effectively. In addition to the RRT credential, many therapists hold case management credentials, such as the Certified Case Manager (CCM) credential. 

7. Critical Care

Many R.T.s choose the extreme care units due to the fast pace and complex care delivered there. The most advanced equipment and the sickest patients belong to a critical care respiratory therapist.   Most therapists working in the intensive care unit have advanced level credentials in RRT. 

Financing Your Respiratory Therapist Education

Get started on your college funding procedures by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, called the FAFSA. These federal funds provide the most student financial aid in the country, giving out more than $100 billion a year to more than 15 million students in federal grants, loans, and work-study.

The respiratory care profession’s philanthropic arm will likely allow you to apply for scholarships as well. There are three scholarships organized by the American Respiratory Care Foundation, which undergraduate students can take advantage of. And as for advanced degree students, there are also two scholarship programs offered for existing respiratory therapists who have finished a B.S. program.

The American Association for Respiratory Care provides scholarships:

Undergraduate Programs:

  1. Morton B. Duggan, Jr. Memorial Education Recognition Award

-eligible for anyone in any state (preferably from Georgia and South Carolina)

-amounting to $1000

  1. NBRC/AMP Robert M. Lawrence, MD Education Recognition Award

-Offered to students in their 3rd or 4th year of an accredited respiratory care degree program 

-amounting to $2500

  1. Jimmy A. Young Memorial Education Recognition Award 

-awarded to students of minority origin

-amounting to $1000, in memory of Jimmy Young (former president of AARC)

Postgraduate Programs:

  1. NBRC/AMP Gareth B. Gish, MS, RRT Memorial Postgraduate Education Recognition Award 

-amounting to $1500

  1. William F. Miller, MD Postgraduate Education Recognition Award 

-established by Dr. Miller

-amounting to $1500 

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Respiratory Therapist Career Outlook

Employees of respiratory therapists are projected to grow much faster than average for the entire industry, increasing 23 percent from 2016 to 2026. Due to the increasing population of older people, there will be more demands for respiratory therapists to handle ailments like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia, and other lung disorders. The aging population will have to avail of respiratory therapy services in hospitals and other facilities. Besides hospitals and medical institutions, respiratory therapists are also employed in clinics, private doctors’ offices, or even nursing homes. 

Increased respiratory therapist demand is also expected to be a result of advances in preventing and detecting illnesses, improved medications, and improved treatments. In addition to air pollution, smoking, and respiratory emergencies, other conditions which affect the general population will continue to create a demand for respiratory therapists.

Career Advancement 

As you advance through your respiratory therapy career, you may find yourself seeking new opportunities. You have other options if you’re having trouble locating a job in respiratory care with your degree. Here are a few examples:

  • Begin your own business in respiratory therapy.
  • Work for an equipment manufacturer in the respiratory therapy industry
  • Become an education specialist

Work Environment

While working with patients, respiratory therapists are often on their feet for hectic hours daily. Most work in hospitals in the anesthesia and respiratory care departments. Nurses and home health care professionals are employed by nursing institutions, while others work for home health care agencies.

Work Schedule

Some positions require evening and weekend hours, but most R.T.s work full time. 

Top 5 Respiratory Therapist Careers

The many different career paths available in respiratory therapy may be of interest to students considering a degree in the field. As the area becomes increasingly specialized, many professionals who hold RRT certification can earn other specialty certifications such as neonatal, acute care, and pulmonary function specialist certification.

Adult Critical Care Specialty

Salary: $69,304

Getting experience in adult intensive care should be a primary priority of any RRT. Most hospitals are no longer allowing CRTs inside the ICU care wards, saving this role only for specialists. Respiratory Therapists must take the Adult Critical Care Specialty (ACCS) test, which objectively evaluates their expertise and know-how in this field. These encompass competencies specific to adult critical care that go through everything about general respiratory care. Thus, having this accreditation indicates to employers, patients, and everyone else that you can apply your skills when faced with instances to work in intensive care areas. This examination is offered to individuals who have already previously achieved the RRT credential. 

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Sleep Disorders Testing & Therapeutic Intervention Respiratory Care Specialist 

Salary: $68,629

Obstructive Sleep Apnea is becoming increasingly common, increasing the demand for therapists specializing in sleep studies. A Sleep Disorder Specialist is assessed and certified after passing the NBRC-SDS examination by a Registered Respiratory Therapist. Some respiratory therapists are also licensed in the field of critical care through exemplary conditions.

Polysomnography is performed by specialists who also diagnose and prepare treatment plans for sleep disorders. Insomnia, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy, and sleep apnea are among the conditions the sleep disorder specialist works to alleviate and treat. Several years of specialized sleep laboratory training are required to qualify for a position on this board.

It is estimated that a billion individuals suffer from sleep apnea worldwide. Because of the severe drop in blood oxygen levels caused by the interruption of air supply at night, the cardiovascular system works harder to increase oxygen flow. In the U.S., about 38,000 patients with sleep apnea die each year from difficulties related to cardiovascular illnesses.

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Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist, RPFT

Salary: $64,881

With an increasing life expectancy, some occupational diseases, and the convenience of shifting patient home care, diagnosing pulmonary conditions has become more and more crucial. There are two types of RPFTs: a hospital pulmonary diagnostician and a medical analyst. Pulmonary function technicians examine patients that may incur lung diseases or other respiratory disorders. 

The technologist performs diagnostic work on patients and works with nurses and medical professionals to identify conditions to arrive at a final diagnosis. A respiration therapist is typically trained in pulmonary studies and has earned a license from the National Board for Respiratory Care for a general or specialized certification in respiratory therapy. Medical researchers sometimes seek assistance and support from RPFT professionals.

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Neonatal/Pediatric Respiratory Care Specialist, NPS

Salary: $72,371

In the past, premature babies would not have survived due to population growth, poor economic issues, relocations, and inadequate pregnancy care. Moreover, allergies and asthma in childhood also increase the need for this concentration of study.

A neonatal-pediatric R.T. usually works in these specific wards or general hospitals. In their first few days, newborns are monitored if they have issues with breathing and treated if necessary. A neonatal respiratory therapist may help babies usually develop by monitoring their breathing, treating babies that naturally incur respiratory illnesses, or providing emergency respiratory care to babies under five months old.

Pediatric respiratory therapists treat children with asthma, pulmonary issues, and other respiratory disorders, performing breathing treatments and other care. These professionals typically hold Certified Reproductive Therapist (CRT) credentials or Registered Rehabilitation Therapist (RRT), and some therapists also have a Neonatal-Pediatric Specialist credential or NPS.  Many asthma therapists working with children now earn certification in asthma management, called the Asthma Educator-Certified credential, otherwise known as AE-C.

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Registered Respiratory Therapist, RRT

Salary: $78,897

Registered respiratory therapists (RRTs) are licensed respiratory practitioners throughout the country. After passing NBRC-WRE and NBRC-CSE examinations, the National Board for Respiratory Care issues the certificate for the RRT. To be eligible for the NBRC RRT exams, you must have previously passed both the NBRC ELE and the NBRC-ELE examinations, which are prerequisites for a Respiratory Therapist.

Many students who enroll in this program have the ambition of entering a general respiratory therapy practice after graduation. In 2009, All Healthcare magazine listed respiratory therapy as one of the top 10 top-paying jobs with an associate’s degree. U.S. News list this position among the top jobs as well.

Home care RRT technicians, currently not requiring a particular certification, are becoming an emerging sub-specialty for respiratory therapy graduates. As patients suffering from sleep disorders are increasingly being cared for in the home and sub-acute care facilities, it is becoming increasingly necessary for round-the-clock registered nurses to perform the following duties:

  • Inspect the air quality in a patient’s home to ensure it’s safe.
  • Provide sleep apnea education to patients and install sleep apnea equipment in their homes.
  • Maintain frequent contact with patients requiring mechanical ventilation at home
  • Answer questions about equipment troubleshooting from caregivers, suggest therapy changes, and document progress.

Individuals who specialize in respiratory home care can close business and still rely on their institutions for other services such as equipment and clinical support. In contrast, others focus on respiratory diagnostics and patient care.