In yoga practice, they teach the idea that “breath is life.” When performing a simple task, some people might say it’s “as easy as breathing.” “Just breathe” is tossed around as an everyday philosophy. These quotes make the process seem pretty simple, but that isn’t always the case.
Whether a patient suffers from chronic lung disease, breathing disorders, or acute respiratory illness, the act of breathing is laborious and can require professional medical attention—that’s where a respiratory therapist comes in.
If you’re interested in this rewarding career path, read on for everything you need to know about what respiratory therapists do.
What is a Respiratory Therapist?
The answer—like the act of breathing itself—isn’t too complicated.
A respiratory therapist (RT) is a certified medical professional specializing in the treatment of the lungs and breathing-related medical conditions. Also known as respiratory care practitioners, RTs are in charge of creating and administering treatment plans and diagnosing respiratory issues, in many cases.
A Respiratory Therapist’s Responsibilities
The respiratory system is complex, and patient needs can vary greatly. As such, the daily responsibilities of an RT differ from shift to shift. A respiratory therapist job description will likely include:1
- Intubating patients in critical condition
- Monitoring blood oxygen levels
- Conducting lung function tests, like spirometry, gas diffusion, and plethysmography
- Administering medications through a respirator or inhaler
- Creating and discussing treatment plans with patients
- Educating patients on respiratory health
A respiratory therapist is often involved in a patient’s case from the beginning, playing a large role in the diagnosis, treatment, and ongoing care of various pulmonary conditions.
So, what conditions fall under an RT’s expertise and jurisdiction?
A Respiratory Therapist’s Patients
Because respiratory therapists are often involved in a patient’s assessment, diagnosis, and initial treatment, they see many different patients who come to them with some form of respiratory condition or concern. Some of the most common lung conditions that an RT may treat include:2
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Cystic fibrosis
- Sleep apnea
- Lung cancer
But respiratory therapy isn’t strictly limited to lung diseases. Patients who are diagnosed with musculoskeletal disorders may also be referred to an RT for treatment, as the condition may be impacting their breathing and lung functioning. These include:
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
- Parkinson’s disease
- Spinal muscular dystrophy
Finally, some patients need the help of a respiratory therapist because of external or situational factors. This may include:1
- Trauma to the lungs from an accident
- Premature babies with underdeveloped lungs
- Cardiac failure that disrupts normal breathing functions
A Respiratory Therapist’s Work Environments
A respiratory therapist is needed wherever you can find the above procedures and conditions. The vast majority of RTs—above 75%—work in hospitals.3 There, you might find them in the intensive care unit (ICU), the pulmonary function lab, the pediatrics wing, or the general hospital floor providing treatment and assistance.4
However, respiratory therapists work in various clinics 5and health centers, including:
- Rehabilitation Centers – In outpatient respiratory rehabilitation clinics, RTs see patients regularly for checkups and treatment. A patient may require rehabilitative therapy to breathe easier or to regain normal pulmonary function after surgery or serious respiratory problems. Therapy may include education, counseling, breathing techniques, and physical activity.
- In-Home Care – Patients with chronic conditions and difficulty traveling may need in-home rehabilitation or sustained care. RTs may train patients and their families on using breathing machines and assisting with respiratory therapy or treatment.
- Sleep Disorder Clinics – There is considerable overlap between sleep disorders and respiratory conditions. RTs may assist with running sleep studies, diagnosing patients, and creating treatment plans for patients with sleep apnea and other disorders.
Respiratory therapists are critical members of the healthcare community. With all the good they do for their patients and the responsibilities they assume, you might be wondering where they fall on the medical hierarchy.
Is a Respiratory Therapist a Doctor?
No, a respiratory therapist is not a doctor. An MD (Doctor of Medicine, also referred to as physicians or simply doctors) is a title reserved for those who have completed medical school and fulfilled several years of residency.
Respiratory therapists may work with both doctors and nurses in a number of settings, but the path to earning this title, and the work involved in the job, is quite different.1
How Do You Become a Respiratory Therapist?
Becoming a respiratory therapist will require a few key steps. From education to clinical practice, here is everything you need for how to become a respiratory therapist:
- Education – The minimum education required for respiratory therapists is a two-year associate’s degree, although some RTs go on to earn advanced degrees in the field. Completion of a bachelor’s or master’s respiratory therapy program can lead to greater job opportunities, higher starting salaries, and increased leadership positions.2
The coursework for any respiratory therapist program will consist of a core scientific curriculum, as well as a specialized series of advanced classes that teach practical skills needed to work in the field, like clinical respiratory care, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and mechanical ventilation.6
- Licensure – In order to practice independently, you’ll need to earn a respiratory therapist license in your state (excluding Alaska, where a license isn’t required). In the U.S., these are the steps involved in becoming a licensed respiratory therapist:
- Passing the National Board of Respiratory Care (NBRC) licensing exam will earn you a Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) credential.
- Those who earn high marks on the NBRC exam can go on to take the Clinical Simulation Exam, which earns you the highest title within the field: Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT).
- Most employers also require CRTs and RRTs to hold a valid cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certificate.
Once you’ve earned your degree or certificate and license, it’s time to start training for your new job as a respiratory therapist!
Each work environment will have its own set of training protocols, but most respiratory therapists should expect to learn the following upon being hired:10
- How to work with the necessary equipment, such as ventilators and aerosol generators
- Rules regarding patient file organization, safety, and sanitation
- Emergency care procedures, including artificial respiration and CPR
Respiratory Therapist Specializations
In addition to these standard practices, some RTs opt for a more specialized career path. If you’re interested in a particular field of respiratory therapy, pursuing a specialization can lead to more job opportunities and unique responsibilities.
Below are some of the respiratory therapy field’s most common specializations:8
- Emergency RT – Emergency RTs work in hospitals and emergency rooms. Patients in critical conditions and those recovering from surgery are most likely to require emergency respiratory therapy. The use of ventilators and other artificial breathing devices makes up a large portion of the work in this specialization.
- Adult RT – Adult RT can occur in hospitals, private practices, rehabilitation centers, and home care facilities. Respiratory therapists within this specialization often work with chronically ill patients or those trying to quit smoking.
- Pediatric RT – Pediatric RTs may work in a hospital or private practice setting. Most pediatric RT patients are babies and children with chronic lung diseases, such as asthma. Some pediatric RTs may also work in the NICU, treating premature newborns with breathing issues.
- Geriatric RT – Certain respiratory conditions—like COPD and bronchial pneumonia—are more common in elderly patients. Geriatric RTs may work in hospitals or nursing homes, treating patients who are 65 years or older.
How Much Do Respiratory Therapists Make?
Money isn’t everything, but it may factor into your career choice. On average, a certified respiratory therapist in the United States will make approximately $65,000 per year.9 With this in mind, it’s important to note that variables like education, location, and credentials can greatly impact your annual salary in this field:
- Education – On average, RTs with an associate’s degree earn $49,473 per year. For RTs with a master’s degree, the average salary jumps to $61,336 per year.2
- Location – Respiratory therapists make the most money in California, with an average annual salary of $73,323. Kentucky is the lowest-earning state for RTs, with an average annual salary of $45,460.10
- Credentials – There are a number of differences between CRTs and RRTs—including salary. Registered Respiratory Therapists tend to earn more money than Certified Respiratory Therapists because of the additional licensing requirements.
What’s the Job Market Like for Respiratory Therapists?
The healthcare field is growing as a whole, and respiratory therapy is no different.
The bureau of labor statistics predicts 19% growth for the RT field between 2019 and 2029, meaning an additional 26,300 RT jobs in the coming decade.11 With respiratory therapy on the rise, now is the perfect time to start a career in this promising field.
Host Healthcare: Taking Your Healing Hands to New Heights
For respiratory therapists who want to see the world, Host Healthcare can help you get there.
Host Healthcare is one of the top staffing travel healthcare companies in the United States. Becoming one of our traveling respiratory therapists is simple—not quite as simple as inhaling and exhaling, but pretty close. All you need to do is submit your application through the Host Healthcare website, choose your specialty, and wait for approval. From there, we’d match you with a trusted recruiter who could help you secure suitable jobs across the country.
Your next adventure is right around the corner. Get more out of your career and apply to become a traveler today with Host Healthcare!
- “What Is a Respiratory Therapist?” Edited by Paul Boyce, WebMD, WebMD, 24 May 2020, www.webmd.com/lung/what-respiratory-therapist
- “Respiratory Therapist Career Guide.” Gwynedd Mercy University, www.gmercyu.edu/academics/learn/become-a-respiratory-therapist
- “Respiratory Therapist.” Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science, www.college.mayo.edu/academics/explore-health-care-careers/careers-a-z/respiratory-therapist/
- “Respiratory Therapist.” Cleveland Clinic, www.my.clevelandclinic.org/departments/health-sciences-education/careers/career-options/respiratory-therapist
- “What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?” Gwynedd Mercy University, www.gmercyu.edu/academics/learn/what-do-respiratory-therapists-do
- “Respiratory Therapists – What They Do.” Student Scholarships, www.studentscholarships.org/salary/646/respiratory_therapists.php
- “Detailed Guide for Respiratory Therapists in Kern County.” State of California, Employment Development Department, www.labormarketinfo.edd.ca.gov/OccGuides/Detail.aspx?Soccode=291126&Geography=0604000029
- Watson, Kathryn. “What Is a Respiratory Therapist?” Edited by Carissa Stephens, Healthline, 22 Mar. 2017, www.healthline.com/health/what-is-a-respiratory-therapist
- “Certified Respiratory Therapist Salary in the United States.” Salary, www.salary.com/research/salary/benchmark/certified-respiratory-therapist-salary
- “Respiratory Therapist Salary in 2021 (Listed Out by State).” Respiratory Therapy Zone, www.respiratorytherapyzone.com/respiratory-therapist-salary-by-state/
- “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