The journey to becoming a respiratory therapist combines rigorous academic coursework with hands-on clinical experience.
This essential healthcare role requires a dedicated educational path, ranging from foundational studies to specialized respiratory care training.
Understanding the timeline and steps involved in this process is crucial for those considering a career in this essential medical field.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Respiratory Therapist?
Becoming a respiratory therapist typically requires two to four years, depending on the educational path chosen. This includes completing prerequisite courses and an accredited respiratory therapy program. Accelerated programs can shorten this time while pursuing a bachelor’s degree may extend it.
How Long is Respiratory Therapy School?
The average length of respiratory therapy school is approximately three years. This timeline typically includes completing prerequisite courses, which can take about one year, followed by a two-year accredited respiratory therapy program.
For example, most students can complete the required prerequisite courses in one year. Then, can complete a two-year respiratory therapy program, bringing the total time to three years.
However, some students may take longer to complete the prerequisite courses. This could extend the total time required to become a respiratory therapist to four years.
Note: There are also accelerated respiratory therapy programs that can be completed in as little as 18 months. These programs are designed for students who have already completed the prerequisite courses.
What is a Respiratory Therapist?
A respiratory therapist is a specialized healthcare professional who provides care for patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders.
They play a critical role in diagnosing, treating, and managing conditions such as chronic respiratory diseases (e.g., asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), acute emergencies (e.g., respiratory failure, cardiac arrest), and providing care for patients on ventilators.
Respiratory therapists work across various settings, including hospitals, intensive care units, emergency rooms, and pulmonary rehabilitation centers.
Their responsibilities range from conducting diagnostic tests and managing ventilators to educating patients on lung health and assisting with respiratory therapy treatments.
They work closely with a medical team to develop and implement comprehensive treatment plans for patients of all ages, from newborns to the elderly.
What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?
Respiratory therapists perform a wide array of duties focused on the assessment, treatment, and care of patients with respiratory and cardiopulmonary issues.
Their responsibilities include:
- Assessing patients for lung disease
- Administering aerosol medications to a patient’s lungs
- Administering oxygen therapy
- Administering lung expansion therapy
- Administering chest physical therapy (CPT)
- Administering airway clearance therapy to remove mucus
- Managing patients who are on the mechanical ventilator
- Assisting with endotracheal intubation
- Assisting with a bronchoscopy procedure
- Drawing and analyzing an arterial blood gas (ABG)
- Designing and implementing treatment plans
- Managing patients with a tracheostomy
- Suctioning and analyzing sputum specimens
- Analyzing chest x-rays
- Assessing vital signs
- Performing electrocardiogram tests (ECG)
- Performing pulmonary function tests (PFT)
- Responding to Code Blue and emergency situations
- Assisting with pulmonary rehabilitation
- Performing studies and research related to the cardiopulmonary system
- Educating patients on smoking cessation
Note: Respiratory therapists are vital healthcare team members, collaborating closely with doctors, nurses, and other specialists to provide comprehensive care to improve patient’s respiratory function and overall well-being.
How to Become a Respiratory Therapist
Becoming a respiratory therapist involves a series of educational and professional steps. Here’s a concise roadmap:
- High School Graduation: Obtain a high school diploma or equivalent, focusing on science subjects like biology, chemistry, and mathematics, which lay a solid foundation for your future studies.
- Prerequisite Courses: Complete the required prerequisite courses, often including subjects like anatomy, physiology, microbiology, and physics, which are essential for entering a respiratory therapy program.
- Accredited Respiratory Therapy Program: Enroll in an accredited respiratory therapy program. These programs are typically offered at the associate degree level and take about two years to complete, although some institutions offer bachelor’s degree programs for those interested in advanced studies.
- Clinical Experience: Gain hands-on experience through clinical rotations included in your respiratory therapy program, allowing you to apply your knowledge in real-world settings under the supervision of experienced professionals.
- National Board Exams: Upon completing your educational program, pass the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) exams to become a Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) and, optionally, a Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT).
- State Licensure: Apply for licensure in your state, as most states require respiratory therapists to be licensed to practice. The requirements for licensure vary by state but typically include passing the NBRC exam and completing an accredited program.
- Continuing Education and Career Advancement: Maintain your certification and licensure through continuing education. Opportunities for further education and specialization can lead to advanced roles within the field, such as in management, education, or specialized clinical areas.
Note: Each step is crucial in building the knowledge, skills, and qualifications needed to become a successful respiratory therapist, capable of providing expert care to patients with respiratory conditions.
What is the Salary of a Respiratory Therapist?
The median annual salary for respiratory therapists is around $70,540, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, salaries can vary widely based on factors such as geographic location, work setting, experience, and education level.
Respiratory therapists in certain states or metropolitan areas, particularly those with higher costs of living or greater demand for healthcare services, may earn significantly more.
Additionally, those with advanced certifications, specializations, or years of experience in the field can also expect to command higher salaries.
Note: It’s important for individuals considering this career to research specific salary information relevant to their desired work location and potential career path within respiratory therapy.
What Do You Learn in Respiratory Therapy School?
In respiratory therapy school, students engage in a comprehensive curriculum designed to equip them with the knowledge and skills necessary for a successful career in respiratory care.
The coursework covers a broad range of subjects, including:
- Respiratory Anatomy and Physiology: Understanding the structure and function of the respiratory system, including mechanics of breathing, gas exchange, and regulation of breathing.
- Pathology: Studying diseases that affect the respiratory system, learning how these conditions manifest, progress, and how they can be managed or treated.
- Pharmacology: Learning about medications used in the treatment of respiratory conditions, including how they work, how to administer them, and their potential side effects.
- Patient Assessment: Training in evaluating respiratory patients, including history taking, physical examination, and interpreting diagnostic tests like chest X-rays and pulmonary function tests.
- Therapeutic Procedures: Mastering various treatments and interventions for respiratory care, such as aerosol medication delivery, airway management, ventilator support, and pulmonary rehabilitation techniques.
- Mechanical Ventilation: Understanding the principles and practice of mechanical ventilation, including indications for use, settings management, and weaning processes.
- Neonatal/Pediatric Care: Specializing in the respiratory care of infants and children, including congenital issues, developmental concerns, and specific pediatric respiratory treatments.
- Pulmonary Function Testing: Learning to conduct and interpret tests that measure lung capacity, volume, flow rate, and gas exchange.
- Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation: Gaining skills in designing and implementing rehabilitation programs for patients recovering from respiratory diseases or surgeries.
In addition to theoretical coursework, respiratory therapy programs heavily emphasize clinical practice, allowing students to gain hands-on experience in real healthcare settings under the supervision of experienced professionals.
This practical training is crucial for developing the competency to assess and treat patients effectively upon graduation.
What Skills Do Respiratory Therapists Need?
Respiratory therapists require a diverse set of skills to effectively care for patients with respiratory conditions.
These skills encompass technical proficiency, physical abilities, and interpersonal attributes:
- Technical Skills: Understanding and operating complex medical equipment, such as ventilators, oxygen delivery systems, and monitors, is crucial. Knowledge of diagnostic tests and procedures, including pulmonary function tests and arterial blood gas analysis, is also essential.
- Clinical Skills: Ability to perform respiratory therapy techniques like aerosol medication delivery, airway management, and mechanical ventilation. Skill in conducting physical assessments and interpreting results to develop and implement care plans.
- Physical Stamina and Dexterity: The job often requires long hours on their feet, moving and lifting patients or equipment, and performing precise tasks that require good hand-eye coordination.
- Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving: Assessing patient needs, monitoring their responses to treatment, and making quick, informed decisions in emergency situations or when adjusting care plans.
- Attention to Detail: Monitoring and accurately documenting patient information, managing multiple treatment plans, and ensuring precise delivery of therapies.
- Communication Skills: Effective communication with patients, families, and healthcare team members is vital. This includes explaining treatment plans, listening to concerns, and working collaboratively.
- Empathy and Sensitivity: Understanding and compassionately responding to the stress, fear, and uncertainty patients and families may experience due to respiratory ailments.
- Adaptability: Flexibility to work in various healthcare settings and adapt to changes in technology, treatment protocols, and patient needs.
- Emotional Stability: Managing the emotional stress of working with critically ill patients while maintaining professionalism.
- Lifelong Learning: Commitment to ongoing education to stay current with advances in respiratory care practice and technology.
Note: These skills enable respiratory therapists to provide high-quality care, improve patient outcomes, and effectively collaborate within the healthcare team.
Does Respiratory Therapy School Require a Bachelors Degree?
No, respiratory therapy school does not require a bachelor’s degree for entry. Most respiratory therapists enter the field with an associate’s degree from an accredited respiratory therapy program.
These associate degree programs typically take two years to complete and provide the necessary education and clinical experience to prepare graduates for certification and entry into the profession.
However, there are bachelor’s degree programs in respiratory therapy for those interested in advancing their education.
A bachelor’s degree may offer more in-depth study and potentially open doors to advanced practice, leadership, education, and research opportunities within the field.
It’s also worth noting that some employers may prefer or require a bachelor’s degree for certain positions, and pursuing higher education could lead to greater career advancement and higher earning potential.
Becoming a respiratory therapist offers a rewarding career path for those interested in the healthcare field. With the option to enter the profession through an associate’s degree program, it provides a relatively quick path to a vital and fulfilling role within a healthcare team.
Advanced education opportunities, such as bachelor’s degree programs, further enhance career prospects and allow for specialization.
Regardless of the educational path chosen, respiratory therapists play a crucial role in improving patient outcomes and quality of life for those with respiratory conditions, making it a compelling choice for individuals passionate about making a difference in healthcare.
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.
- Faarc, Kacmarek Robert PhD Rrt, et al. Egan’s Fundamentals of Respiratory Care. 12th ed., Mosby, 2020.
- “The National Board for Respiratory Care.” The National Board for Respiratory Care, Accessed 26 Feb. 2024.
- “Respiratory Therapists : Occupational Outlook Handbook.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10 May 2022.