When choosing a career path in the healthcare industry, your options are seemingly endless. From physicians to pharmacists, there are myriad job opportunities for individuals who are devoted to helping people—and who aren’t afraid of a little hard work.
A career as a respiratory therapist (RT) has become increasingly popular, and while it differs in several ways from a registered nurse (RN), many people find themselves debating between the two. RTs have a very specific niche—pulmonary and respiratory functioning—while RNs work in much broader fields, or pursue specializations like neonatal nursing or oncology nursing.
We’ll break down the differences between the two careers and explore which option may be best suited for you. We’ll cover:
- Education requirements
- Job responsibilities
- Job prospects
Ready to learn more about which healthcare field is right for you? Read on.
Respiratory Therapist vs RN: Everything You Need to Know
Anyone interested in becoming either an RT or RN will have to commit to a certain level of education and training. Beyond that, the daily responsibilities, salaries, and job opportunities can look very different, with benefits and downsides to each career.
Let’s take a closer look at the career trajectories of both professions.
#1 Education Requirements for Respiratory Therapists
What is a respiratory therapist? RTs work under doctors with a team of other healthcare professionals (including registered nurses) to help patients with their breathing. These patients could be newborn babies with premature lungs or patients approaching their 90th birthday with chronic pulmonary dysfunction.
To become an RT, you’ll need either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree:
- An associate’s degree will focus almost exclusively on an RT-intensive curriculum and should take about two years to obtain. According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the typical entry-level education of most RTs is an associate’s degree.1
- A bachelor’s degree will include additional courses like anatomy, chemistry, and math. This degree usually takes four years to earn. Some employers prefer individuals with a bachelor’s degree, though it’s not technically a requirement.
No matter which degree you choose, all RT programs must be accredited—you can find a list of accredited programs online at the American Association for Respiratory Care.
After successfully completing your RT program, you’ll need to become licensed with the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) through a standardized exam process.
Depending on the patients you’ll be working with, you may need to acquire additional certification to be a certified respiratory therapist. Basic Life Support and Advanced Cardiac Life Support training and certification are also suggested, though not required. Once you become an RT, you’ll need to renew your NBRC licensure every five years.
In Comparison: Education Requirements for Registered Nurses
Similarly, becoming a registered nurse requires either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, though there are alternative ways to earn the latter. The three degree options that will qualify you for your nursing license exam are:
- An Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) – This two-year option is hyperfocused on the practical aspects of working as a registered nurse. Registered nurses with an associate’s degree will have solid job prospects, though perhaps not as many as those who reach higher education levels.
- A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) – This four-year degree program will include both nursing and liberal arts coursework, which could include writing, a foreign language, humanities, and arts, as well as science. According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the typical entry-level education for an RN is a bachelor’s degree.2
- An Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) – This fast-paced degree alternative is for people who already have a bachelor’s degree in another field and want to become RNs. These programs can take between 12 and 24 months to complete.
Registered nurses will have received more education and training than certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs). RNs who want to elevate their careers to the next level may choose to work toward a master’s degree to become advanced practice registered nurses.
- The educational requirements for becoming a registered nurse and a respiratory therapist are virtually identical, just in different fields.
- It may be easier to become a registered nurse than a respiratory therapist if switching from another undergraduate major because of the widespread availability of accelerated BSN programs.
#2 Job Responsibilities for Respiratory Therapists
Respiratory therapists offer compassionate care to patients in often vulnerable or critical conditions. The day-to-day job responsibilities of an RT may include:3
- Evaluating patients
- Assessing and diagnosing lung or breathing disorders
- Performing tests and studies
- Administering inhalants
- Working with physicians to determine appropriate therapy and treatment options
- Analyzing blood and sputum samples in the lab
- Managing equipment for patients that can’t breathe on their own
- Educating patients and their families about respiratory conditions
The responsibilities of an RT will vary depending on their workplace, which you may want to consider as you decide between a career as a respiratory therapist vs RN. For instance:
- RTs working in hospitals will treat patients that require acute care and may be part of the facility’s emergency or rapid response team.
- RTs working in pulmonary rehab clinics will work with patients doing breathing therapy by counseling, educating, and treating patients.
- RTs may offer in-home care for patients who are unable to make it to a physical location.
- RTs can work at specialized sleep disorder centers, where they diagnose and prepare treatment plans for patients who may be suffering from disorders like sleep apnea.
In Comparison: Job Responsibilities for Registered Nurses
After graduating and passing the National Council Licensure Examination, many RNs choose to pursue a specialization within the nursing field. These specialties include everything from a cardiac care nurse to an ER nurse to a nurse-midwife.
Some nurses specialize in multiple healthcare sectors, while others continue to provide general, comprehensive care. Regardless, all RNs typically perform a wide range of duties. Day-to-day responsibilities may include:5
- Relaying and implementing a doctor’s orders to the patient
- Starting IVs
- Administering medication, including over-the-counter and prescriptions
- Performing special procedures and tests
- Ordering diagnostic tests
- Responsibly assessing and evaluating a patients’ needs
- Providing primary and acute care
- Collaborating with the nursing team and other healthcare professionals
RNs may work in hospitals, physician offices, outpatient facilities, nursing homes, and private patient homes.
- Both RTs and RNs perform a vast collection of integral duties and are often working directly to support, treat, and reassure patients.
- Respiratory therapists often have more autonomy than registered nurses, especially as it pertains to their primary area of expertise.
- Registered nurses work closely with many other healthcare professionals, often taking orders from doctors and specialists, and acting collaboratively with their fellow nurses.
#3 Job Prospects for Respiratory Therapists
According to 2019 data from The Bureau of Labor Statistics, RTs earn a median annual salary of $61,330, with an anticipated 19% growth in the field’s job prospects over the next ten years.6 While still a somewhat niche area of medicine, the field of respiratory therapy is growing and evolving. Where once RTs were found only in hospitals, they’re now teaming up with other healthcare professionals, like RNs, to expand their role in the community.6
RTs are able to find job opportunities in asthma and COPD clinics as well as community health centers.
In Comparison: Job Prospects for Registered Nurses
The Bureau of Labor Statistics cites similar growth within the registered nursing profession, with an anticipated employment increase of 7% between 2019 and 2029.2
One major difference, though, is the current and expected size of the professions. There were over three million registered nurses working in the country in 2019, compared to only 135,800 RTs in 2019. Still, the number of prospective employees and available positions seems to be consistent across both fields—there are fewer RTs to fill a smaller number of job openings, meaning the supply and demand for qualified personnel remains in balance.
On average, RNs earn $73,300 a year2 but can collect six-figure salaries depending on their specialty and place of employment.
- A respiratory therapist vs RN 4salary is, on average, about $10,000 less, though there’s a lot of variation within both professions, depending on the specific position, level of responsibility, and facility.
- The job outlook for both jobs is overwhelmingly positive, with expected growth over the next ten years.
- Although RNs make more money on average than RTs, there are already millions of registered nurses to compete with after graduation. RTs are fulfilling a niche and may find more potential job opportunities as RTs become more in demand.
Choosing Your Career: RT vs RN
The education, training, and certification required to become an RT and RN are similar, but the jobs themselves vary greatly in terms of day-to-day responsibilities. When deciding between these two careers, consider what kind of work environment you’d like to have, where your interests lie within the medical field, and how you’d like to spend your shifts.
Expand Your Options With Host Healthcare
The job prospects are looking up for both RTs and RNs—in more ways than one. With the introduction of travel healthcare companies, you can now take your skills and education on the road as a traveling respiratory therapist or nurse. Host Healthcare’s travelers work closely with their dedicated recruiters to find suitable placements around the country and world.
Interested in experiencing something brand new, while remaining committed to the industry you’re so passionate about? Apply to be a traveler with one of the most reputable travel healthcare companies, Host Healthcare, today.
While the decision between RN and RT is one that only you can make, the choice of where to work can be made in tandem with recruiters that genuinely care about what you want.
- “Respiratory Therapists: Occupational Outlook Handbook.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1 Sept. 2020, www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/respiratory-therapists.htm
- “Registered Nurses: Occupational Outlook Handbook.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 18 Feb. 2021, www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm#tab-1
- “Respiratory Therapist.” Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science, www.college.mayo.edu/academics/explore-health-care-careers/careers-a-z/respiratory-therapist/
- “What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?” Gwynedd Mercy University, www.gmercyu.edu/academics/learn/what-do-respiratory-therapists-do
- Rosenberg McKay, Dawn. “What Does a Registered Nurse (RN) Do?” The Balance Careers, 18 June 2019, www.thebalancecareers.com/registered-nurse-526062
- Rickards, Tracey, and Emily Kitts. “The roles, they are a changing: Respiratory Therapists as part of the multidisciplinary, community, primary health care team.” Canadian journal of respiratory therapy : CJRT = Revue canadienne de la therapie respiratoire : RCTR vol. 54,4 (2018): 10.29390/cjrt-2018-024. doi:10.29390/cjrt-2018-024