Respiratory therapists work with doctors and other healthcare professionals to evaluate, treat and care for patients who have breathing and other cardiopulmonary disorders. They also perform diagnostic tests and limited physical examinations. Therapists utilize complex, specialized equipment to help people breath.
They work with patients ranging in age from infants to senior citizens. Respiratory therapists work under the supervision of physicians. Most respiratory therapists are employed in hospitals. They also work in nursing care facilities and physician offices.
Therapists often treat patients with oxygen and oxygen mixtures, aerosol medications and chest physiotherapy. They provide treatments that give temporary relief for problems such as emphysema and chronic asthma. They also give emergency care to patients for heart attacks, strokes, shock and drowning. Some therapists, employed in hospitals, might work in intensive care or critical care units.
Some of the duties of therapists and technicians overlap, however the therapists have more responsibility. Therapists provide more complex therapies which need independent judgement. Respiratory therapists also consult with doctors and other healthcare personnel in order to create and modify the treatment strategies for patients.
In some hospitals respiratory therapists are involved with duties that are not traditionally part of the profession such as pulmonary resuscitation, disease prevention and smoking cessation counseling.
- Conduct diagnostic tests
- Offer treatments with oxygen or oxygen mixtures, aerosol medications and physiotherapy
- Evaluate patients by interviewing them and giving limited physical examinations
- Treat people of all ages
- Connect patients to ventilators
- Evaluate patients' lung capacity
- Perform regular checks on patients
- Test people for lung abnormalities
- Consult with doctors and other healthcare personnel to create and modify care plans
- Make sure the equipment is working properly
- Supervise respiratory technicians
- Measure patients concentration of oxygen and other gases in their blood
- Determine the pH level, which shows the acidity or alkalinity of a patient's blood
They typically work between 30 and 40 hours a week. Those that work in hospitals might be required to work evenings, nights and during weekends. They spend a lot of time walking and standing. Respiratory therapists are sometimes exposed to infectious diseases, however risks are minimized by adhering to appropriate procedures. They also handle high-pressure cylinders.
Some respiratory therapists have to use independent judgement when taking care of patients. Respiratory therapists must be detail-oriented, be sensitive to their patients' needs, follow instructions and be good at working as part of a team. Also, in order to operate some of the equipment they need to be proficient with computers.
In 2006, the median annual earnings for respiratory therapists was $47,420. In 2006, there were about 122,000 jobs in the profession. About 79 percent were employed in hospitals, primarily in departments of respiratory care, anesthesiology and pulmonary medicine.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 19% growth rate for respiratory therapists from 2006 to 2016 which is faster than average for all occupations. The growth in employment is partly due to growth in the middle-aged and elderly populations. These age groups are expected to increase the number of cardiopulmonary disease patients. Advances in medications and treatments will also increase the need for respiratory therapists.
The demand for respiratory therapists will also increase since therapists are expanding their role in disease prevention, case management, early detection of pulmonary disorders and emergency care. Most of the employment opportunities will continue to be provided by hospitals. Growth in job opportunities will also occur in other settings such as home healthcare services and doctor offices.
They typically advance in their careers by taking care of critically ill patients who have substantial problems with other organs such as kidneys or the heart. Experienced therapists, particularly those which have advanced degrees, may have opportunities to acquire supervisory or managerial positions in a respiratory therapy department.
Respiratory Therapy Schools, Certification, and Licensing
Respiratory therapists need at least an associate degree. Those with a bachelor's or a master's degree may have better opportunities for advancing in their careers. Training is provided at colleges, universities, vocational schools, medical schools and the Armed Forces. The programs usually included courses in human anatomy, microbiology, physics, mathematics, chemistry and pharmacology. Courses are also provided in therapeutic and diagnostic procedures and tests, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, respiratory health promotion, disease prevention, cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation and other topics.
Licensure is typically based on fulfilling the certification requirements of the National Board for Respiratory Care. Those that graduate from programs accredited by the CAAHEP or the Committee on Accreditation for Respiratory Care and also pass an exam are provided with a Certified Respiratory Therapist credential. Certified Respiratory therapists that graduated from advanced programs and are able to pass two separate exams receive the Registered Respiratory Therapist credential. Supervisory jobs and intensive-care specialties typically require a Registered Respiratory therapist credential.
- American Association for Respiratory Care
- Commission on Accreditation for Allied Health Education Programs
- National Board for Respiratory Care
Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals. Other major employers are nursing homes, respiratory therapy clinics and home care agencies.
Schools for Respiratory Therapists are listed in the Browse Schools Section.