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Respiratory Therapist Careers

Respiratory therapists treat patients suffering from a variety of breathing disorders, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, working with age groups ranging from infants to seniors. Specialized breathing tests can help measure the amount of oxygen flowing through a patient's lungs. In more severe cases, a blood gas analyzer can show whether oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in a patient's blood sample fall within acceptable ranges. Working closely with physicians and nurse practitioners, professionals in this field help develop treatment plans that can include medication and chest physiotherapy to reduce mucus and improve lung capacity.

Although many respiratory therapists work in hospitals, nursing care facilities and doctors' offices, government statistics indicate a growing number now specialize in home healthcare. Respiratory patients sometimes require treatment around the clock, especially in hospitals and nursing homes. Respiratory therapists spend much of their time on their feet, moving from patient to patient. In certain cases, therapists may need to move and lift patients to facilitate care or testing, and they may also be involved in emergency care.

How to Become a Respiratory Therapist

Prospective respiratory therapists must earn a minimum of an associate degree related to the field, although additional education is valued, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Certification is not always a prerequisite for employment, but the BLS notes that most employers prefer certified candidates. Every state except Alaska requires licensure for respiratory therapist jobs (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

The following steps can help individuals enter the field of respiratory therapy:

  1. Earn a high school diploma or the equivalent.
  2. Complete a formal respiratory therapist training program. Associate or bachelor's degree programs typically combine classroom instruction and supervised clinical work with patients.
  3. Choose to gain professional certification through an examination that tests understanding of equipment, therapeutic procedures and clinical data.
  4. Seek licensing from the state, which may require certification. Regulations vary by state, and those interested in becoming respiratory therapists should research the requirements in their particular state.
  5. Apply to entry-level respiratory therapist jobs.
  6. Maintain respiratory therapy certification through continuing education courses and/or a re-examination.

Post-Education Requirements: Certifications and/or State Licensing

Graduates of a formal training program can pursue certification through the National Board for Respiratory Care, an organization that maintains credentialing for respiratory therapists in the United States. The NBRC maintains two levels of certifications, the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) for entry-level professionals and the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) for experienced professionals. The NBRC's continuing competency program offers ongoing respiratory therapist training needed to maintain each certification.

Respiratory Therapist Specialties

There are a handful of specialized paths within the field of respiratory therapy, including:

  • Smoking cessation (counseling patients enrolled in employer and insurance company sponsored programs)
  • Sleep apnea (working with patients whose lack of oxygen impairs sleep)
  • Home equipment (training patients and caregivers on complex devices)

The NBRC offers certification exams for specializations such as Certified Pulmonary Function Technologist (CPFT) or Sleep Disorders Specialty (SDS).

Respiratory Therapist Job Growth and Average Salary

Rising case loads involving COPD and other chronic respiratory disorders have created demand for respiratory therapists. The BLS expects the profession to grow by 28 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020, which is faster than the average growth forecast for U.S. occupations. Improved treatments and prolonged lifespans of patients with lung disease and other breathing disorders should continue to expand opportunities for respiratory therapist jobs (bls.gov/ooh, 2012). The median annual respiratory therapist salary in the U.S. was $55,870 in May 2012, with the highest 10 percent earning more than $75,430 and the lowest 10 percent earning below $40,980 according to the BLS (bls.gov/oes, 2013). Respiratory therapist salary figures can vary based on location and other factors.

List of Related Careers

A degree in respiratory therapy may help prepare students to pursue related career avenues, some of which require additional education or experience. These can include career paths such as the following:

  • Registered Nurses: Help coordinate patient care and provide health education for patients and the public. Other duties may include administering medicine and offering emotional support for patients and their families during treatment. RNs need formal training as well as licensing.
  • Occupational Therapists: Utilize everyday activities and exercises to treat patients with disabilities and illnesses as they prepare to resume daily work and leisure routines. A master's degree is typical for these professionals, while occupational therapy assistants may have only an associate degree.
  • Athletic Trainers: Work with athletes and other individuals who have muscle and bone injuries or illnesses, helping clients regain mobility. This field typically calls for at least a bachelor's degree.

Links to Sources and Associations

Websites such as the following provide more information on respiratory therapy:

American Association for Respiratory Care

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, Respiratory Therapists, 2013

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Respiratory Therapists, 2012

National Board for Respiratory Care