Respiratory therapists practice under the supervision of physicians, caring for patients with cardiopulmonary problems. They evaluate and treat these patients and also supervise the work of respiratory therapy technicians. The nature of the work of respiratory therapists overlaps somewhat with the work of respiratory therapy technicians. However, respiratory therapists usually have a much higher level of responsibility. Respiratory therapists consult directly with physicians and other healthcare staff to create and improve the treatment plans of individual patients. They are responsible for administering complex therapy, such as treating patients in intensive care units who rely on life support systems.
Respiratory therapists interview patients, examine them physically, and order diagnostic tests. By comparing this information with that of the average for a person of the same height, weight, age, and gender, they can determine whether the patient has deficiencies in their respiratory system. Respiratory therapists treat patients with many different types of disorders, from premature infants with underdeveloped lungs, to elderly patients with diseased lungs. They also provide care to patients who have been traumatized by a heart attack, drowning, stroke, or shock. In hospitals, respiratory therapists are responsible for an even wider range of duties, including performing chest physiotherapy to clear the lungs of mucus and enable patients to breathe more easily.
Respiratory therapists need to be able to follow instructions accurately and pay close attention to detail. They must be good at working in teams. They should be sensitive to the emotional and physical needs of patients. Proficiency with computer systems is also very valuable.
In 2002, respiratory therapists earned a median annual salary of $40,220. Earnings ranged from the lowest 10%, who earned less than $30,270, to the highest 10%, who earned more than $54,030.
Training and Education
An associate degree is the general requirement for entry-level respiratory therapist positions. Formal training is a definite requirement and is offered by colleges and universities, medical schools, vocational-technical institutes, and the Armed Forces. While some provide an associate degree or certification that prepares graduates for entry-level jobs, most programs award either an associate or bachelor’s degree and are designed to enable graduates to eventually secure advanced positions within the field. There are about 59 entry-level and 319 advanced programs in the United States. Programs include study in human anatomy and physiology, pathophysiology, chemistry, physics, microbiology, pharmacology, and mathematics. Many also include courses in therapeutic and diagnostic procedures and tests, equipment, patient assessment, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and medical recordkeeping.
Individuals wishing to become respiratory therapists should check on State licensure requirements because over 40 States require licenses. Respiratory therapists can voluntarily earn the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) or the Certified respiratory Therapist (CRT) designations from the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) after graduating from an accredited program. Most entry-level positions require the CRT designation, and most supervisory positions require the RRT designation.
In 2002, respiratory therapists held about 112,000 jobs. More than 4 out of 5 worked in hospital departments of respiratory care, anesthesiology, or pulmonary medicine.
Between 2002 and 2012, employment of respiratory therapists is expected to increase faster than the average due to a rapidly aging population who are more at risk for cardiopulmonary diseases. Job opportunities will be best for those who have cardiopulmonary skills or experience working with premature infants.
For more information on becoming a respiratory therapy technician, please see our directory of Respiratory Therapy Schools.