Respiratory therapists are medical professionals who treat patients with cardiopulmonary disorders. As the COVID-19 pandemic quickly brought to light, RTs are essential members of the healthcare team.
While a career in respiratory therapy can be gratifying and rewarding, it’s certainly not for everyone. But the good news is that respiratory therapists receive training and develop skills transferable to several other professions.
This article will explore some of the top alternative career options for respiratory therapists and healthcare professionals looking for a similar job in the medical field.
Alternative Careers for Respiratory Therapists
If you’re a respiratory therapist who is looking for a change, here are some alternative career options to consider:
- Radiologic Technologist
- Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA)
- Medical Lab Technologist (MLT)
- Polysomnographic Technologist
- Cardiac Rehabilitation Specialist
- Personal trainer
- Athletic trainer
- Physician Assistant (PA)
- Clinical educator
As a respiratory therapist, you’re already well-versed in caring for patients with cardiopulmonary disorders. Therefore, you could become a registered nurse (RN) with some additional training and education.
This is actually more common than you might think.
I know several RTs who decided to make the switch. Of course, this requires going back to school and taking the NCLEX exam. But if you’re up for the challenge, it can be a great way to switch things up and advance your career.
I’ve met several RN-RRTs who are licensed and carry credentials for both professions. This offers more career options and stability and allows you to be a vital part of the care team in two different capacities.
Radiologic technologists, also known as radiographers or radiology technicians, use diagnostic equipment to produce images of the body that physicians use to diagnose and treat diseases.
They specialize in imaging techniques such as x-rays, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and mammography.
While a radiologic technologist’s job duties differ from those of an RT, the two professions have a lot in common. Both require the use of sophisticated medical equipment, and both have a focus on patient care.
Physical Therapist Assistant
A physical therapist assistant (PTA) is a healthcare professional who works under the supervision of a physical therapist to provide rehabilitative services to patients.
PTAs help patients recover from injuries and illnesses, regain movement and function, and manage pain. They also provide education and support to patients and their families.
While PTAs are not directly responsible for treating patients with lung disorders, they are familiar with the respiratory system and the types of treatment used to improve cardiopulmonary function.
Therefore, the knowledge and skills you have as a respiratory therapist would likely transfer well to this profession. If you’re interested in becoming a PTA, you must complete an accredited physical therapy assistant program.
Medical Lab Technologist
A medical lab technologist (MLT) is a healthcare professional who performs laboratory tests to help diagnose and treat diseases.
MLTs work in hospitals, clinics, and reference laboratories. They use various sophisticated equipment to perform their duties, including analyzing blood, tissues, and other body fluids.
Respiratory therapists often communicate with MLTs on the job, as they are involved in the analysis of blood and mucus samples. Therefore, RTs have a good understanding of the types of tests that MLTs perform and their results.
A polysomnographic technologist is a healthcare professional who specializes in sleep medicine. They use diagnostic equipment to evaluate patients with sleep disorders.
Polysomnographic technologists work in hospitals, sleep clinics, and research laboratories. They are trained in using specialized equipment, such as EEG machines and sleep monitors.
Polysomnography and respiratory therapy are very closely related, as both involve diagnosing and treating sleep disorders (e.g., sleep apnea). Respiratory therapists can even specialize and earn a credential in sleep medicine (RRT-SDS).
Therefore, if you’re interested in pursuing a career that exclusively works with sleep-disorder patients, this could be a seamless transition.
Cardiac Rehabilitation Specialist
A cardiac rehabilitation specialist is a healthcare professional who works with patients who have heart conditions. They help patients recover from heart attacks, heart surgery, and other cardiovascular diseases.
Cardiac rehabilitation specialists work in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities. They may also work in corporate wellness programs and fitness centers.
While a cardiac rehabilitation specialist’s job duties differ from those of an RT, the two professions have a lot in common. Both require extensive knowledge of the cardiovascular system, and both have a focus on patient education and lifestyle modification.
A personal trainer is a fitness professional who helps people reach their health and fitness goals. They design exercise programs, provide instruction and motivation, and monitor their clients’ progress.
Personal trainers work in gyms, fitness centers, and health clubs. They may also be self-employed or work for corporate wellness programs.
Breathing is an important component of physical activity, and respiratory therapists (obviously) have a lot of expertise in this area. RTs often work with patients with breathing disorders, so they know how to modify exercise programs to accommodate these conditions.
In addition, many personal trainers are certified in CPR and first aid. As a respiratory therapist, you likely have CPR certification, making you even more qualified for this profession.
An athletic trainer is a licensed healthcare professional who specializes in the field of sports medicine. They work with athletes of all levels to prevent, diagnose, and treat injuries.
Athletic trainers work in various settings, including schools, colleges, universities, and professional sports teams. They may also be self-employed or work in hospitals or clinics.
Athletic trainers and respiratory therapists also have a lot in common.
Both professions require knowledge of human anatomy and physiology, and both involve preventing, diagnosing, and treating injuries. In addition, both athletic trainers and respiratory therapists must be certified in CPR and first aid.
Athletic trainers typically have a bachelor’s degree in athletic training; therefore, this is something to consider if you’re interested in this profession.
A physician assistant (PA) is a healthcare professional who works with a physician to provide patient care. PAs are highly-trained to examine patients, diagnose illnesses, and prescribe medications.
They often work in hospitals, clinics, physicians’ offices, and other healthcare facilities.
The education requirements for becoming a PA involve acquiring both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Most programs also require extensive clinical experience working in a healthcare setting.
This is an excellent option for respiratory therapists interested in advancing their career and scope of practice, especially those who don’t want to go through the rigors of medical school. It also provides an opportunity to earn a much higher salary.
A clinical educator is a healthcare professional who works with students and staff in a healthcare setting. They provide instruction, support, and guidance to help students learn and be successful in their careers.
Clinical educators work in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities. They are often directly employed by universities and respiratory therapy programs.
Becoming a clinical educator is a great way for respiratory therapists to leverage their knowledge and skills to train and educate future RTs.
So, if you need a break from direct patient care but still want to work in the field of respiratory care, this could be the perfect career path for you.
Respiratory therapists provide diagnostic and therapeutic services to patients with breathing problems, such as asthma, COPD, and lung cancer. They also play an essential role in the management of critical care patients.
Although a career in respiratory care can be enriching, as previously mentioned, it’s not for everyone.
If you’re a respiratory therapist considering a change, the good news is that several alternative career options are available to you.
The options listed above are just a few of the many possibilities.
So, if you’re ready for a change, be sure to research and explore all of the different (but similar) career paths that are available. Good luck, and thanks for reading!
John Landry, BS, RRT
John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.
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- “What Does a Clinical Education Coordinator Do, and Is It Right for Me?” American Association for Respiratory Care, 20 Jan. 2021, www.aarc.org/careers/career-advice/professional-development/what-does-a-clinical-education-coordinator-do-and-is-it-right-for-me.