Becoming a Respiratory Therapist

A specialized field within allied health, respiratory therapy covers a range of diagnostic and therapeutic services for cardiopulmonary disorders and diseases, such as bronchitis, coronary heart disease and emphysema. Working under the supervision of a physician, respiratory therapists provide direct care to patients of all ages. This type of care ranges from administering oxygen to managing mechanical ventilators, monitoring heart functions and measuring lung function.

Types of degrees in respiratory therapy

Educational programs provide students with the opportunity to develop both technical proficiencies in and conceptual knowledge of respiratory care. Academic training is only the first step towards becoming a respiratory therapist -- other steps include passing national certification examinations and meeting state licensing requirements.

Fast facts about respiratory care

Respiratory therapy is a dynamic, challenging health care profession that is demand across the country. Here are some quick facts about the career and the opportunities associated with it.

* There are more than 119,000 respiratory therapists in the country.

* The average annual wage for U.S. respiratory therapists was $57,880 in 2013.

* The best-paying setting for respiratory therapists are outpatient care centers ($69,860 average annual wage).

* National job growth should reach 19 percent between 2012 and 2022.

* Idaho has the fastest growing market for respiratory therapists.

* The five states with the largest employment opportunities include Idaho, Texas, Utah, Colorado and North Dakota.

* The best-paying states for respiratory therapists in 2013 were California, New Jersey and Nevada.

* Top health care settings include hospitals, nursing homes, outpatient care centers and mental health facilities.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), an associate degree in respiratory therapy is the minimum educational requirement for employment in the field. Although an associate degree can open the door to a career in the field, other degree options are available at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, including bachelor's and master's degrees. The field is more specialized than other health degrees, but it can be an excellent choice for students seeking strong careers in health care.

Below is an overview of each type of respiratory degree, its curriculum components and program highlights.

Associate of Science in Respiratory Care

An associate degree is the most basic educational option and can prepare students for entry-level positions as a respiratory therapist, registered respiratory therapist or certified respiratory therapist. A varied program, the associate degree is offered in several different formats, including the following:

  • Associate of Respiratory Therapy (ART)
  • Associate of Applied Science in Respiratory Therapy (AAS)
  • Associate Degree in Respiratory Therapy (ADRT)

In these programs, students can develop a basic understanding of the field of practice, including the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of individuals suffering from breathing and cardiopulmonary disorders. Although the specific program of study varies by college, students are typically introduced topics such as cardiopulmonary disease, pharmacology, microbiology and respiratory therapeutics.

Students in respiratory care programs are typically required to complete one or more clinical practicums designed to develop real-world experience in the field. Practicums may focus in specialized areas, including neonatal and pediatrics, emergency and critical care, or diagnostic and therapeutic care. Each rotation generally consists of 200 to 250 hours of clinical experience that takes place at different health care settings.

Overall, most associate of respiratory therapy programs can be completed in a range of 18 to 26 months of study, depending on the institution, degree, and course requirements.

Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Care

Bachelor degree programs in respiratory care are traditionally delivered in two-formats: a four-year program, or a degree completion program created specifically for practicing respiratory therapists seeking to finish a bachelor's.

Full bachelor's programs generally require between 120 and 128 semester credit hours to complete, which are divided into core curriculum, respiratory therapy perquisites, respiratory therapy coursework, and a clinical practicum. Like the associate degree, students participate in a professional phase of study that is dedicated to acquiring between 800 and 1,000 hours of in-hospital training.

Students interested in degree completion opportunities typically must hold an Associate of Science in Respiratory Care from an accredited college and be credentialed as a Registered Respiratory Therapist to be admitted to a program. Total credit hours vary by institution, but degrees may be completed in as little as one to two years of study. The clinical requirement is usually waived because the student is a practicing respiratory therapist.

As a more advanced degree, the bachelor's in respiratory care offers students the opportunity to develop leadership, management and research skills through advanced coursework in areas such as cardiopulmonary sciences, health care information systems, ethics, pharmacology and more. Some programs may also provide instruction in specialized areas including flight medicine, home health care, pediatrics, or clinical education.

Master of Science in Respiratory Therapy

The graduate degree in respiratory therapy is designed to accelerate the mobility of respiratory therapists into leadership positions as clinical instructors, clinical team leaders, specialized therapists and more. Master's programs introduce students to advanced research concepts and teach them how to apply evidence-based concepts to clinical practice.

Students enrolled in these programs generally concentrate their studies in one of three areas:

  • Management and leadership
  • Respiratory care education
  • A diagnostic area of patient care (such as pediatrics).

Curriculum varies by college, but example courses may cover topics such as establishing clinical practice guidelines, research design, advanced cardiopulmonary physiology and more.

Online degrees in respiratory care

Respiratory therapy degrees are available in a variety of delivery formats including traditional on-campus settings, online, and hybrid (including both online and in-person instruction). Depending on the college or university, online degrees may be completed entirely online through both asynchronous learning (requiring scheduled participation in class meetings through online technologies) and synchronous learning (no scheduled class meetings, but self-paced according to a class syllabus). For example, the University of Cincinnati offers a fully online Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Therapy that includes a 20-hour clinical observation.

A good first step for students seeking online education is to compare respiratory therapy schools and see which distance-learning and traditional programs fit their needs and goals.

Certification in respiratory therapy

As mentioned above, degree programs in respiratory therapy prepare graduates to sit for certification examinations from the National Board of Respiratory Care (NBRC). The NBRC offers seven certification options, including two main designations: Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) and Certified Respiratory Therapist. The other examinations include the following:

  • Adult Critical Care Specialty Examination (RRT-ACCS)
  • Certified Pulmonary Function Technologist (CPFT)
  • Neonatal/Pediatric Respiratory Care Specialist (CRT-NPS or RRT-NPS)
  • Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist (RPFT)
  • Sleep Disorders Testing and Therapeutic Intervention Respiratory Care Specialist (CRT-SDS or RRT-SDS)

Students considering enrolling in a program should ensure the program is accredited by the Commission on the Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CARC) or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), a core requirement of examination eligibility from the National Board of Respiratory Care.

Five questions to ask before selecting a respiratory therapy program

What makes a good respiratory degree program? There are several factors that can affect the quality of a program, from job placement rates to cost. Here are five things prospective students should ask to determine if the degree program is a solid fit for their future educational and professional goals.

  1. Is the program CAAHEP or CARC accredited?
  2. What is the student-to-faculty ratio?
  3. What is the background of faculty members?
  4. How much hands-on clinical experience does the program offer?
  5. What areas of specialization does the program provide?

1. Commission on the Accreditation for Respiratory Care, http://www.coarc.com/
2. National Board for Respiratory Care, https://www.nbrc.org/crt/pages/default.aspx
3. National Board for Respiratory Care, Examinations, https://www.nbrc.org/Pages/examinations.aspx
4. Long Term Occupational Projections for Respiratory Therapy, Projections Central, http://projectionscentral.com/Projections/LongTerm
5. Online Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Therapy, University of Cincinnati, http://respiratorytherapy.uc.edu/
6. Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013: Respiratory Therapists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, April 1, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291126.htm
7. Respiratory Therapists, "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/respiratory-therapists.htm

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