Respiratory therapy is a growing field that offers many opportunities for those who are interested in working in the medical field. If you’re interested in becoming a respiratory therapist, there are a few required steps that must be completed.
In this article, we’ll outline the steps necessary to become a respiratory therapist, including completing an accredited respiratory therapy program, passing the board exams, and obtaining a license for the state in which you’ll practice.
What is a Respiratory Therapist?
A respiratory therapist (RT) is a medical professional who specializes in the treatment of diseases that affect the lungs and cardiopulmonary system.
RTs work with patients of all ages, from infants to the elderly population. They provide care for those suffering from acute and chronic respiratory conditions, such as asthma, COPD, and heart failure.
In addition to treating patients, respiratory therapists also play an important role in educating the public about respiratory health and disease prevention.
Steps for Becoming a Respiratory Therapist
There are a few steps that must be completed in order to become a licensed respiratory therapist, including the following:
- Have a Natural Desire to Help Others
- Graduate from High School
- Take the Required Prerequisite Courses
- Apply to Your Favorite Schools
- Enroll in the Program
- Complete the Required Coursework
- Complete the Required Clinical Experience
- Graduate with an Associates Degree
- Pass the NBRC Credentialing Exams
- Apply for a License
- Apply for a Job
- Advance Your Career
- Maintain Your Certification
Each step is important and must be completed during the process of becoming a respiratory therapist. Let’s take a closer look at each one in more detail.
1. Have a Natural Desire to Help Others
The first step to becoming a respiratory therapist is having a natural desire to help others. This is an important quality for any medical professional, but it is especially important for RTs.
Respiratory therapists work with patients who are often in a great deal of pain and discomfort. They must be compassionate and empathetic in order to provide the best possible care for their patients. This career path has to be more than just a paycheck.
2. Graduate from High School
The next step is to graduate from high school or earn a GED equivalent. RTs must have a high school diploma or equivalent in order to be eligible for most programs.
3. Take the Required Prerequisite Courses
After high school, the next step is to take the required prerequisite courses. These courses will vary depending on the respiratory therapy program you choose, but they typically include subjects such as:
- Anatomy and physiology
- College algebra
- English composition
Again, it’s important to check the requirements for each school you’re interested in to see what specific prerequisite courses are required.
4. Apply to Your Favorite Schools
After completing all prerequisite courses and other requirements (e.g., observation hours, recommendation letters, etc.), the next step is to submit applications to the schools you’re interested in.
There are many accredited respiratory therapy programs to choose from, so it’s important to do your research and select the one that’s the best fit for you.
5. Enroll in the Program
Once you’ve been accepted into a program, the next step is to enroll by formally accepting the offer of admission. This essentially locks in your position in the program and ensures that you’ll have a spot in the class.
6. Complete the Required Coursework
The next step is to successfully complete the required courses offered by your program. Some examples of the most common respiratory therapy courses include:
- Fundamentals of Respiratory Care
- Cardiopulmonary A&P
- Patient Assessment
- Airway management
- Mechanical ventilation
- Neonatal and Pediatric Care
- Cardiopulmonary pathology
We have hundreds of free study guides that have helped thousands of students pass their exams in respiratory therapy school.
7. Complete the Required Clinical Experience
In addition to completing the required coursework, students must also complete a certain number of clinical hours. This typically includes a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on training in a hospital or other medical setting.
Acquiring hands-on clinical experience as a student is one of the most essential steps in becoming a respiratory therapist.
The number of clinical hours required will vary depending on the program you’re in, but it’s typically between 500 and 1,000 hours.
8. Graduate with an Associates Degree
After successfully completing all academic and clinical requirements, the next step is to graduate with an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy. This is the standard entry-level degree for this profession.
9. Pass the NBRC Credentialing Exams
In order to earn the credentials needed to practice respiratory care, graduates must pass a series of exams administered by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC).
There are two board exams that graduates must pass:
- Therapist Multiple-Choice (TMC) Exam
- Clinical Simulation Exam (CSE)
In order to become a registered respiratory therapist (RRT), you must first pass the TMC exam with a high-cut score. This makes you eligible to take the CSE, which, if passed, awards you with the RRT credential.
The TMC and CSE exams are both computer-based and offered year-round at testing centers across the country.
10. Apply for a License
After earning credentials by passing the NBRC exams, the next step is to apply for a license in the state in which you plan to work. This allows you to legally practice respiratory care in that particular state.
Each state has its own process and requirements for licensure, so it’s important to check with your state’s licensing board for specific details. If you would like to practice in multiple states, you will need to obtain a separate license for each state.
11. Apply for a Job
Now that you are licensed and credentialed, you are ready to apply for a job and start your career as a respiratory therapist! The best way to find employment is to search for open positions on job boards or websites like Indeed.com.
You can also reach out to local hospitals or clinics directly and inquire about any open positions or upcoming job fairs. Once you land an interview, be sure to dress professionally and arrive early. Be prepared to answer questions about why you would be a good fit for the position.
12. Advance Your Career
Once you have some experience under your belt, there are many opportunities to advance your career as a respiratory therapist.
This involves acquiring one or more of the specialty credentials offered by the NBRC. This includes:
- Adult Critical Care Specialist (ACCS)
- Neonatal/Pediatric Specialist (NPS)
- Sleep Disorders Specialist (SDS)
- Certified Pulmonary Function Technologist (CPFT)
- Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist (RPFT)
Earning one of these credentials allows you to specialize in a certain area of respiratory care. This can help you attain a better job, which often commands a higher salary.
Respiratory therapists can also advance their careers by obtaining a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a related field. This can lead to positions with more responsibility, such as management roles, or jobs in research or education.
13. Maintain Your Certification
Another important aspect of being a respiratory therapist is maintaining the license and credentials that you worked so hard to obtain.
This usually involves completing assessments and continuing education units (CEUs) on a periodic basis. The requirements for doing this may vary by state and credential, so it’s important to stay up-to-date on the latest requirements.
Failing to maintain your credentials and certification can lead to the loss of your license, which would effectively make you ineligible to practice respiratory care.
What is the Salary of a Respiratory Therapist?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for respiratory therapists was $61,830 in 2021. However, this number will vary depending on factors such as experience, education, and location.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Respiratory Therapist?
It typically takes three to four years to become a respiratory therapist. To do so, the student must complete an accredited respiratory therapy program that usually lasts two years.
However, most programs require that the student complete prerequisite courses prior to starting the program. These courses can add an additional year or two to the total time it takes to become a respiratory therapist.
From there, the candidate must pass the credentialing exams, which can add additional time for studying and preparation. Thankfully, our premium materials can help make that process much easier for students.
What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do on the Job?
Respiratory therapists are responsible for providing care to patients with breathing or other cardiopulmonary disorders. Some of the most common job duties of a respiratory therapist 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 functions 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
What a respiratory therapist does on the job will depend on their specific place of employment. For example, the daily duties of a hospital respiratory therapist will be different than those who work in a nursing home.
What Conditions Do Respiratory Therapists Treat?
Respiratory therapists are responsible for treating patients with conditions of the heart and lungs. Some examples include:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Congestive heart failure (CHF)
- Cystic fibrosis
- Chronic bronchitis
- Interstitial lung disease (ILD)
- Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS)
- Pulmonary embolism
- Pleural effusion
- Myocardial infarction (MI)
- Pulmonary vascular disease
- Pleural diseases
- Sleep apnea
- Lung cancer
Therefore, respiratory therapists must have a thorough understanding of the cardiopulmonary system in order to properly diagnose and treat breathing disorders.
Where Do Respiratory Therapists Work?
Respiratory therapists work in all parts of the hospital and can be found in a variety of settings, including:
- Emergency rooms
- Intensive care units
- Neonatal and pediatric units
- Operating rooms
- Nursing homes
- Rehabilitation centers
- Sleep labs
- Home health
- Skilled nursing facilities
The job duties of a respiratory therapist will vary depending on the setting in which they work. This allows respiratory therapists to have a lot of flexibility in their careers.
What is a Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT)?
A certified respiratory therapist (CRT) is an RT that has obtained the entry-level credential granted by the NBRC. This is the minimum requirement a respiratory therapist needs to apply for a license to practice respiratory care.
After earning the CRT credential and passing the TMC exam with a high-cut score, candidates become eligible to take the clinical simulations exam (CSE).
Upon successful completion of the CSE, candidates are awarded the registered respiratory therapist (RRT) credential.
What is a Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT)?
A registered respiratory therapist (RRT) is an RT that has obtained the high-level credential granted by the NBRC. This is the highest standard requirement a respiratory therapist needs to apply for a license to practice respiratory care.
The first step in earning the RRT credential involves passing the TMC exam with a high-cut score. This will reward you with the certified respiratory therapist (CRT) credential and make you eligible to take the clinical simulations exam (CSE).
Upon successful completion of the clinical simulation examination, you will be awarded the registered respiratory therapist (RRT) credential.
Is Respiratory Therapy the Right Career for You?
- Are you interested in working in the medical field?
- Do you have a passion for helping others?
- Do you have good communication and interpersonal skills?
- Do you have the ability to stay calm under pressure?
- Are you grossed out by mucus and blood?
These are all things to consider before making the decision to become a respiratory therapist.
Just remember that it takes hard work and dedication to succeed in this field. But if you are up for the challenge, then a rewarding career as a respiratory therapist awaits you. 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.
- Faarc, Kacmarek Robert PhD Rrt, et al. Egan’s Fundamentals of Respiratory Care. 12th ed., Mosby, 2020.
- “What Is An RT?” AARC, 12 Sept. 2019, www.aarc.org/careers/what-is-an-rt.
- “The National Board for Respiratory Care.” The National Board for Respiratory Care, www.nbrc.org. Accessed 18 Dec. 2020.
- “Respiratory Therapists : Occupational Outlook Handbook.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10 May 2022, www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/respiratory-therapists.htm.
Medical Disclaimer: The information provided by Respiratory Therapy Zone is for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please consult with a physician with any questions that you may have regarding a medical condition.