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Respiratory Therapist


Respiratory therapists apply scientific principles to prevent, identify and treat acute or chronic dysfunction of the cardiopulmonary system. Their knowledge of the scientific principles underlying cardiopulmonary physiology and pathophysiology, as well as biomedical engineering and technology, enables them to effectively assess, educate and treat patients with cardiopulmonary disorders.  

Because chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the fourth leading killer of adults, people with asthma, bronchitis and emphysema need respiratory therapy. In addition, people who have had heart attacks, suffered trauma, are born prematurely or have sleep disorders might also need respiratory therapy to help them breathe easier. People of every age, from premature infants to the elderly, need respiratory care. 

Respiratory therapy is practiced under medical direction. Critical thinking, patient/environment assessment skills and evidence-based clinical practice guidelines enable respiratory therapists to develop and implement effective care plans, protocols and disease management programs.

In addition to entry level skills, advanced level therapists participate in clinical decision-making and patient education, the development and implementation of protocols and treatment plans, health promotion, disease prevention and disease management. Although they practice under the supervision of a physician, they are required to exercise considerable independent judgment in providing respiratory therapy to patients.

To learn more about this career, watch "Life and Breath," a video about what it is like to be a respiratory therapist, and read about becoming a respiratory therapist.

Working Conditions

Respiratory therapy is provided in nearly all health care venues including, but not limited to:

  • Acute care hospitals (where about 75% of respiratory therapists are employed)
  • Diagnostic laboratories
  • Sleep disorder centers
  • Rehabilitation, long-term acute care and skilled nursing facilities
  • Patients' homes
  • Patient transport systems
  • Physician offices
  • Convalescent and retirement centers
  • Educational institutions
  • Wellness centers

Some respiratory therapists also work for medical device manufacturers.

Career opportunities will remain good in the foreseeable future, projected to grow 19% between 2012 and 2022. This growth is largely due to the growing percentage of older people, who have higher incidences of respiratory conditions and illnesses like emphysema, chronic bronchitis and pneumonia. These respiratory disorders can permanently damage the lungs or restrict lung function.

Academic Requirements

Respiratory therapists need a minimum of an associate's degree although many students get a bachelor's degree and some go on to earn a graduate degree. Forty-nine states require licensing or legal credentialing.

In order to take the entry-level examination for certification, which is administered by the National Board for Respiratory Care, respiratory students must get at least an associate's degree and a certificate of completion from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care.