Respiratory Therapists

Respiratory therapists are responsible for preventative care and treatment of patients who are having trouble breathing. Many patients suffer from chronic diseases that affect the lungs such as asthma, bronchitis, or emphysema. Others have experienced a heart attack, stroke, shock, or other condition that limits their ability to breathe.

Education

Most respiratory therapists hold an associate’s degree from a technical school. According to O*Net Online, 83% hold an associates degree while 7% hold a bachelors degree. A higher level of education will allow you to begin your career with more responsibilities and a higher level of pay.

Vocational schools, technical colleges and some four-year college and universities offer degrees in respiratory therapy. The military also offers the training. Earning a degree in respiratory therapy entails classroom instruction and a clinical internship which involves gaining hands-on experience in a healthcare environment.

In order to gain your license to practice, it is important to select a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care. The organization’s website offer a search tool to find programs in your state.

Certification and Licensure

With the exception of Alaska, all states require respiratory therapists to be licensed by the National Board for Respiratory Care. Obtaining your license requires obtaining a degree or comparable hands-on experience and completing an exam in most states. The website for the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) offers a search for licensure requirements in your state.

In some states, holding one of NBRC’s certifications is also a requirement for licensure.
Two certifications are available from the board. The basic certification is called the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT). It requires a minimum of an associate’s degree and a satisfactory score on the NBRC’s CRT exam. A Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) certification requires a basic CRT certification, additional education requirements, hands-on experience, and passing another exam.

Responsibilities

Respiratory therapists conduct physical exams as well as run tests and analyze the results. Their primary responsibilities include diagnosing issues and prescribing treatment methods. These methods are then carried out using specialized breathing treatments, ventilators and artificial airway devices, in addition to other therapy tools.

Therapists often participate in making clinical decisions with physicians and other therapists. They are typically in charge of the respiratory portion of the patient’s education and at-home disease management. Many respiratory therapists attend health fairs and other community events promoting healthy lifestyles. They may also work with community groups on disease prevention efforts.

The American Association for Respiratory Care website provides “A Day in the Life of a Respiratory Therapist.” This provides an in-depth overview of the responsibilities of a typical respiratory therapist.

Career Outlook and Salary

As the aging baby boomers need more medical support, the demand for respiratory therapists is expected to grow. The growth is estimated to be approximately 28% between 2010 and 2020. More than 75% of respiratory therapists work in acute care hospitals, but there are also job opportunities in home healthcare, sleep disorder centers, rehabilitation hospitals, private physician practices, retirement communities and nursing homes.

The salary of a respiratory therapist is higher than that of many people who hold similar degrees. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2010 the median pay for a respiratory therapist was $26.10 per hour. The median annual salary was $54,280. The top 10% of practitioners earned more than $73,410 annually.

Therapists who worked in nursing homes or retirement communities earned the highest rate of pay, on average. This was followed by those employed by home healthcare services, and lastly hospitals. Therapists employed by private physician practices typically earn the lowest average annual salary. The BLS website offers a detailed breakdown of average annual wages by employer.

Additional Resources

Explore Health Careers – This website provides an overview of  respiratory therapy as a career path, including the required education and hands-on training.

O*Net Online - O*Net Online’s Summary Report for Respiratory Therapists includes a comprehensive look at the responsibilities of respiratory therapists as well as required skill sets to be successful in the field.

American Association for Respiratory Care – AARC is the leading nation association of respiratory therapists and other practitioners involved in respiratory care.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – The BLS provides information on the current and future state of respiratory therapy as a career, including where job growth is occurring and which specialties earn the highest wages.

Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care – COARC is the only accreditation agency in the U.S. for collegiate respiratory care programs. The website offers general information on degree programs as well as a search for accredited programs in your state.

Your Lung Health – This website provides information on respiratory therapy and the role of a therapist, written for patients who may need respiratory assistance or rehabilitation.