Learn how to become a respiratory therapist -- and what to expect on the job. Includes key training, career and salary trends.

Respiratory Therapist Careers

Anyone who has suffered from a chronic respiratory condition may know that the right treatment from a skilled provider can quite literally be a breath of fresh air. This is where respiratory therapists come in. These professionals are dedicated to helping patients find relief from their breathing-related ailments, and if government projections hold out, their skills are in demand.

What respiratory therapists do

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012), respiratory therapists care for patients with breathing problems, such as those related to chronic respiratory diseases, asthma or emphysema. This can include a wide breadth of patients, from premature infants with under-developed lungs to sick, elderly patients. At times, respiratory therapists may need to administer emergency care to patients suffering from heart attacks or shock. The BLS notes that most respiratory therapists work in hospitals, but some work in nursing or outpatient care facilities or provide in-home care. Duties can vary from one position to the next, but often include the following tasks:

  • Conferring with and examining patients with breathing problems and issues
  • Consulting with doctors to design treatment plans
  • Performing tests that measure lung capacity or other health metrics
  • Administering treatments via machines such as nebulizers and other methods
  • Teaching patients how to treat themselves
  • Monitoring patient progress

According to the BLS, respiratory therapists need strong interpersonal, problem-solving, and math and science skills. They must also be patient, compassionate and detail oriented. As for the practical, day-to-day skills required of these professionals, those may be mastered in respiratory therapists schools.

How to become a respiratory therapist

As with many health care professions, the right training is important for respiratory therapists. The BLS reports that most professionals must earn at least an associate degree, but some employers may prefer candidates with more education. Respiratory therapists schools come in many forms, from two- or four-year colleges to Armed Forces training. Some future professionals may be able to complete at least some of their respiratory therapist education online, though they must often attend campus-based labs.

According to the BLS, as of 2013, all states except Alaska require respiratory therapists to be licensed. Licensing requirements vary, but often include training guidelines and the successful completion of an exam. Professionals who want to build their resumes can opt to earn professional certification through the National Board for Respiratory Care (nbrc.org).

Key respiratory therapist salary trends

How much any professional earns can depend on a number of variables, like training or experience. The BLS (bls.gov, 2012) reports a national median respiratory therapist salary in 2012 of $55,870. The top 10 percent of earners made at least $75,430 while the bottom 10 percent earned $40,980 or less. Industry can influence earnings. For example, the industries that reported the highest national mean respiratory therapist salaries to the BLS in 2012:

  • Colleges and universities: $68,120
  • Outpatient care centers: $67,720
  • Management of companies: $65,930

Location can impact potential earnings, too. The BLS notes that the following states reported the highest mean respiratory therapist salaries in 2012:

  • California: $73,320
  • Nevada: $69,540
  • Connecticut: $67,760

Career outlook for respiratory therapists

A growing elderly population, increased prevalence of respiratory conditions like emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and advances in medical technology are spurring demand for respiratory therapists. The BLS projects that demand for these professionals will grow by 28 percent between 2010 and 2020, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. The BLS reports that prospects may be best for respiratory therapists with bachelor's degrees or professional certifications.

Just as with earnings, location can affect respiratory therapists' career outlook. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's CareerOneStop (careerinfonet.org, 2012), the following states report the highest projected employment growth for respiratory therapists between 2010 and 2020:

  • Idaho: 49.5 percent
  • Montana: 46.5 percent
  • Maine: 41.1 percent

The BLS projects that career prospects could be best -- regardless of location -- for respiratory therapists with bachelor's degrees or professional certifications (bls.gov, 2012).