Respiratory therapists help people who suffer from chronic respiratory diseases like asthma, bronchitis and emphysema. People who have had heart attacks or who have sleep disorders and infants who are born prematurely might also need respiratory therapy to help them breathe more easily. They also provide emergency care to patients suffering from heart attacks, drowning or shock.
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.
Respiratory therapists’ 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.
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. Respiratory therapists practice under medical direction.
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 exercise considerable independent judgment in providing respiratory therapy to patients.
A day in the life of a respiratory therapist might include:
- Diagnosing lung and breathing disorders and recommending treatment methods
- Interviewing patients and doing chest physical exams to determine what kind of therapy is best for their condition
- Consulting with physicians to recommend a change in therapy, based on an evaluation of the patient
- Analyzing breath, tissue, and blood specimens to determine levels of oxygen and other gases
- Managing ventilators and artificial airway devices for patients who can’t breathe normally on their own
- Responding to Code Blue or other urgent calls for care
- Educating patients and families about lung disease so they can maximize their recovery
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
- Physicians’ offices
- Convalescent and retirement centers
- Educational institutions
- Wellness centers
Some respiratory therapists also work for medical device manufacturers.
With experience, respiratory therapists will find their career options widen, particularly if they work in hospitals, which still employ the majority of respiratory therapists. Respiratory therapists who excel on the job have no problem rising up the ranks from staff therapist, to shift supervisor, to department manager. There are even therapists who have gone into hospital administration and risen to the highest levels of management.
Respiratory therapists who specialize in home care may open their own respiratory home care companies to provide respiratory diagnostic services, patient care education, and other services related to the field while others offer equipment and clinical services.
Some therapists move into the corporate world, finding jobs with equipment manufacturers as product or marketing specialists. Companies like these appreciate the technical knowledge and patient care experience respiratory therapists bring into their positions.
If teaching is something you enjoy, you can also parlay a successful career as a respiratory therapist into a faculty position at a school of respiratory therapy or as a clinical education coordinator for a hospital or other respiratory therapy department. Those positions often include respiratory care research as well, conducting the clinical studies that form the scientific basis for the profession.
Respiratory therapists must have a minimum of an associate degree from an accredited respiratory therapy education program. Many students get a bachelor’s degree and some go on to earn a graduate degree.
After graduation, respiratory therapists are eligible to take a national voluntary multiple-choice examination to earn the Certified Respiratory Therapist credential. After passing the exam, they can take a national voluntary clinical simulation examination that leads to the Registered Respiratory Therapist credential. The National Board for Respiratory Care administers the credentials.
Forty-nine states require licensing or legal credentialing.
Learn More About a Career in Respiratory Therapy
- Watch “Life and Breath,” a video about what it is like to be a respiratory therapist.
- Read more about how to become a respiratory therapist.
- American Association for Respiratory Care
- Committee on Accreditation for Respiratory Care
- National Board for Respiratory Care