What Are Respiratory Therapists and Respiratory Therapy Technicians?
It is a matter of life and breath for respiratory care practitioners. As respiratory therapy technicians or respiratory therapists, these healthcare professionals generally work as part of a medical team, under the supervision of a physician. These teams offer specialized care for patients with breathing difficulties including asthma, bronchitis and emphysema. They may also provide emergency care for heart attack or accident victims and long-term respiratory care for those with cystic fibrosis, lung cancer or AIDS. Respiratory therapy represents a blend of medical and technological knowledge and patient interaction.
Respiratory therapy professionals have career opportunities in hospitals, intensive care units, emergency rooms, pediatric units, operating rooms, sleep laboratories, nursing facilities, rehabilitation clinics, physicians' offices, home care, education, patient transport and consulting. Duties can include diagnosing diseases and recommending treatment plans. Additional tasks include inserting, managing and monitoring ventilators as well as providing educational information to patients and their families. For more information, see our respiratory therapist career page.
Respiratory Therapy Program Information
In addition to core education courses such as English and communication, respiratory therapy programs generally concentrate on the sciences, including anatomy and physiology, chemistry, biology and microbiology, pharmacology, physics and psychology, as well as on mathematics. Classwork specific to respiratory therapy can include diagnosis and testing and patient evaluation.
All states except Alaska require respiratory therapists to be licensed, which normally means passing a state or national exam. Licensing requirements vary by state and are monitored by individual state boards but may include graduating from an accredited program and certification through The National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). Some states require graduation from American Medical Association-approved programs.
Although respiratory therapist certification is not required, many employers prefer it, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The NBRC offers these primary credentials:
- Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT): Requires an associate degree (or equivalent bachelor's degree credits) from an accredited program and passing an exam. This certifies mastery of entry-level therapist knowledge, skills and abilities.
- Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT): Requires CRT certification and shows a more advanced level of respiratory therapy knowledge.
Some states require continuing education for certification or registration renewal.
Respiratory Therapy Program Types
The time it takes to complete respiratory therapy programs depends on the school and whether or not the student attends part time or full time, or enrolls in an accelerated program. Programs can also take longer if the student needs to complete the basic coursework required for admission. Options at respiratory therapy schools include the following:
- Certificate (for respiratory therapy technicians): Completion time is typically 2-3 terms. Hybrid programs may offer a blend of online class instruction and practical experience.
- Associate Degree (for respiratory therapists): This degree is the minimum qualification for respiratory therapists although the BLS notes that employers may prefer additional education. Associate degrees take approximately 2-3 years of full-time study to complete.
- Bachelor's Degree (for respiratory therapists): These degrees typically take four years of full-time study or 2-3 years for those with an associate degree. Studies may be geared toward practicing respiratory therapists who are looking for deeper knowledge in specific areas of interest such as pharmacology or critical care or who are looking for career advancement into management or program administration.
Admission varies for respiratory therapy schools and programs but can include:
- An admissions test
- Satisfactory criminal background check
- Cardiopulmonary resuscitation certificate
- Negative drug screen
- Current immunizations
- Prerequisite coursework in health, biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics
Respiratory Therapy Course Descriptions
The curriculum may differ depending on the program, but common subjects include these:
- Respiratory Therapy Terminology, Ethics and Law: Introduction to medical terminology and the legal and ethical considerations of medical practice.
- Airway Management: Review of different techniques to make sure patient is receiving air to the lungs.
- Vital Signs and Emergencies: Introduction to the proper way to take vital signs and to respond in emergency situations.
- Pharmacology: Study of medications commonly used in respiratory therapy and their indications, contraindications and effects.
- Mechanical Ventilation Theory: Overview of invasive and noninvasive ventilation devices.
Respiratory Therapy Specialties
Respiratory therapy professionals may also specialize in areas such as:
- Adult critical care
- Long-term care
- Home care
- Surface and air transport
The NBRC offers credentials in respiratory therapy specialties such as sleep disorders.
Related Career Options
Respiratory therapy professionals have a variety of career opportunities beyond traditional therapist positions, as they might become shift supervisors, department managers, clinic coordinators or teachers, or move into related fields like respiratory therapy equipment sales. Alternative career paths may require additional experience or education. Related careers could include the following:
- Radiation Therapists: Treat patients with radiation therapy for conditions such as cancer. Therapists typically have an associate or bachelor's degree in the field.
- Registered Nurses: Provide patient care and education. RNs complete a formal training program and obtain a license in their state.
- Athletic Trainers: Work with patients to prevent, diagnose and treat injury and illness such as those related to muscles and bones. Most trainers have a bachelor's degree.
Links to Sources and Associations
Websites such as the following offer more information on respiratory care programs: