Becoming a Respiratory Therapist

Respiratory therapists work closely with physicians to evaluate and treat patients with respiratory issues. Respiratory therapists are trained to handle everything from the premature baby whose lungs are not yet fully developed to the elderly patient whose lungs are failing.

Which Types of Jobs Are Available in Respiratory Therapy?

The day-to-day responsibilities of a respiratory therapist can vary greatly, depending upon the condition of their patients and the area of the hospital or medical facility in which they work. Here are just a few of the situations a respiratory therapist might be called upon to handle:

  • Premature infants whose lungs can't yet work properly
  • Elderly individuals dealing with chronic lung disease
  • People needing care after trauma or illness, such as heart attack or stroke
  • Sufferers of chronic illnesses, including emphysema or asthma
  • Patients of all ages whose breathing is compromised by pneumonia and related conditions
  • Patients on life support systems in intensive care units
  • Individuals suffering from lung cancer and related complications

Respiratory therapists might work in hospital settings, hospice centers, or the homes of their patients in order to deliver appropriate treatments. They test blood gases, oxygen saturation, and other factors that can contribute to the respiratory health of their patients, and they administer necessary medications as well as physiotherapy that can help patients breathe easier.

Many respiratory therapists work in areas that fall outside of their traditional roles. They might choose to work with smoking cessation courses, disease prevention, rehabilitation, patients with sleep apnea, or those in need of emergency critical care.

Formal Training Required to Work in Respiratory Therapy

An associate's degree is the minimum requirement to become a respiratory therapist. Many respiratory therapist degree programs offer the option of a bachelor's or master's degree, which are becoming necessary for advancement in the field. According to the Commission of Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs, there are currently over 300 accredited advanced respiratory therapist programs in the United States.

A strong background in chemistry, mathematics, health, and biology can hold you in good stead when you begin a respiratory therapist degree program. Some of the courses covered in the program may include:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Chemistry and physics
  • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation
  • Microbiology
  • Cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation
  • Medical records and ethics
  • Basic patient care
  • Mathematics
  • Pathophysiology
  • Therapeutic and diagnostic procedures

A respiratory therapist must be licensed in order to practice in the United States, with the exception of Alaska and Hawaii. In order to obtain a license, an applicant must meet the standards of the National Board for Respiratory Care. In order to become a Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT), graduation from an advanced respiratory therapist program and a passing grade on two separate exams is required.

The Typical Career Path of Someone Working in Respiratory Therapy

Becoming a registered respiratory therapist opens a wider door to career advancement, as most supervisory positions and intensive-care specialties require the RRT. Respiratory therapists can work their way up from basic patient care to more intense health care, such as working with patients who have heart or kidney problems. Those who hold a bachelor's or master's degree can move into managerial or supervisory positions in the respiratory therapy department.

Some respiratory therapist jobs in home health care or equipment management can offer advancement as well, such as the opportunity to become branch managers. Becoming an instructor in a respiratory therapist program is also a common career path.

Some choose to work in other industries that can make good use of their knowledge of respiratory therapy, such as pharmaceutical companies, equipment marketing, and the like. However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a vast majority of respiratory therapist jobs--about 81 percent--are in hospitals.

Job Outlook and Salary Information for Those Working in Respiratory Therapy

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 21 percent increase in respiratory therapist jobs through 2018, a much faster than average growth for all occupations. Those who have a bachelor's degree or higher should enjoy the best employment opportunities, and those who have experience working with infants or cardiopulmonary care are projected to be in highest demand.

The median salary for respiratory therapists was $53,330 in 2009, but extensive education and experience could enhance that income. The upper level of salary for respiratory therapists in 2009 was just over $70,000.



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