Respiratory therapists are highly trained medical professionals who care for patients with breathing problems. They work in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare settings, and often collaborate with other members of the healthcare team to provide the best possible care for their patients.
The respiratory therapy curriculum is designed to prepare students for the challenges of this rewarding and demanding career.
In this article, we will explore the inner workings of a respiratory therapy program and what students can expect to learn while in school.
Get access to 25+ premium quizzes, mini-courses, and downloadable cheat sheets for FREE.
What is a Respiratory Therapist?
A respiratory therapist is a healthcare professional who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of patients with breathing problems.
These professionals work closely with other members of the healthcare team, such as doctors and nurses, to provide comprehensive care for their patients.
Respiratory therapists provide care for patients with a variety of breathing disorders, such as asthma, COPD, and cystic fibrosis. They are also responsible for providing life support, including managing and setting up patients on a mechanical ventilator.
What Do Students Learn in Respiratory Therapy School?
Respiratory therapists perform a variety of high-level job duties while at work. Therefore, RT programs are designed to prepare students for the challenges they will face throughout their careers.
Here are some of the things students can expect to learn while in respiratory therapy school:
1. History of Respiratory Care
Respiratory therapy is a relatively new discipline in the medical field, but its therapeutic practices date back throughout history.
Therefore, to become a respiratory therapist, students must first learn about the history of this profession and where it all began.
2. Patient Safety
Patient safety is of the utmost importance in any healthcare setting. In respiratory therapy school, students will learn how to keep their patients safe while providing care.
This includes learning how to properly handle and use medical equipment, as well as ambulation and safe patient transport techniques.
3. Infection Control and Prevention
Infection control and prevention are critical components of respiratory care. Students will learn how to identify and prevent infections in both themselves and their patients.
This includes learning about standard precautions, as well as how to clean and disinfect medical equipment properly.
4. Medical Terminology
Since respiratory therapists work in a medical setting, they must be able to understand and use medical terminology.
This means that students must learn how to use and understand common medical terms and abbreviations.
5. Respiratory Anatomy and Physiology
A thorough understanding of the respiratory system is a requirement for all respiratory therapists and students. Therefore, students will learn about the structure and function of the lungs, airways, and other respiratory structures.
6. Cardiovascular System
The cardiovascular system works closely with the respiratory system, and therefore, respiratory therapists must have a basic understanding of how it works.
This means that RT students must learn about the structure and function of the heart, blood vessels, and other cardiovascular structures.
7. Airway Pharmacology
Respiratory therapists use a variety of medications to treat their patients’ respiratory disorders. Therefore, students must learn about the different types of drugs used in respiratory care.
This includes learning about the indications, contraindications, and side effects of these medications.
8. Neonatal and Pediatric Care
Respiratory therapists are most often recognized for treating adult patients with breathing problems. However, they also provide care for neonatal and pediatric patients.
This means that respiratory therapy students must learn how to assess and treat breathing problems in infants and children as well.
9. Mechanical Ventilation
Mechanical ventilation is an intervention used to treat patients who are unable to breathe on their own. It’s a form of life support that uses a machine to force air into the lungs.
Respiratory therapists are responsible for managing and setting up patients on mechanical ventilators. Therefore, students must learn how to properly use this life-saving equipment.
10. Physical Principles of Respiratory Care
Understanding the physical principles of respiratory care is essential for all respiratory therapists. This includes learning about gas laws, pressure-volume relationships, and ventilation-perfusion ratios.
Learning this information is not an easy task, but it’s an essential and fundamental step in becoming a respiratory therapist.
11. Arterial Blood Gases
An arterial blood gas (ABG) test measures the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood. It involves using a syringe to collect a blood sample from a patient’s artery.
Respiratory therapists are responsible for collecting the arterial blood sample and analyzing the results. This means that students will learn the process of sticking an artery while in school.
Intubation is a medical procedure that involves inserting a tube into the trachea to help a patient breathe. This helps establishes a link between the patient and the mechanical ventilator.
Respiratory therapists are one of the few medical professionals who are licensed and trained to perform this procedure. Therefore, students must learn the entire intubation procedure while in school.
13. Patient Assessment
To provide the best care possible for their patients, respiratory therapists must perform a comprehensive assessment. This includes taking a patient’s medical history, conducting a physical examination, and ordering diagnostic tests.
After the assessment is complete, the respiratory therapist help will develop a plan of care for the patient. This is something that students will learn how to do while in school.
14. Vital Signs
Vital signs are measurements that are used to assess the body’s most basic functions. These include temperature, pulse, respiratory rate, and blood pressure.
All healthcare professionals, including respiratory therapists, must be able to properly measure and interpret vital signs. This is a quick way to assess a patient’s general condition.
15. Normal Patient Values
To properly assess a patient, respiratory therapists must know what the normal values are for various measurements. For example, they need to know the average blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen saturation level of an adult.
This information is essential for all respiratory therapists as it helps them quickly identify when a patient is outside the normal range.
16. Oxygen Saturation
Respiratory therapists must understand how to properly use a pulse oximeter and interpret the results. This is a task that they will constantly perform while on the job.
17. Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation
Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is a life-saving technique that is used to revive patients who are not breathing or have no pulse. This involves delivering chest compressions and rescue breaths at the appropriate time.
Respiratory therapists (and students) are required to keep their CRP certification up-to-date. Therefore, they must learn and fully understand the procedure.
Auscultation is the process of using a stethoscope to listen to internal sounds of the body. This is performed by respiratory therapists on every patient, as they are responsible for listening to the sounds in the lungs.
When abnormal breath sounds are heard, it can indicate that a respiratory issue is present. Respiratory therapy students will learn how to use a stethoscope and identify different types of breath sounds while in school.
19. Pulmonary Function Testing
Pulmonary function testing (PFT) is a set of noninvasive tests used to assess the lungs and respiratory system. Respiratory therapists are responsible for administering these tests and interpreting the results.
PFTs are important in diagnosing and managing various respiratory conditions. Therefore, students must learn about the different types and equipment.
20. Noninvasive Ventilation
Noninvasive ventilation (NIV) is a type of mechanical ventilation that is used without the insertion of an artificial airway. The two most common types are BiPAP and CPAP.
Respiratory therapists are responsible for setting up and managing patients on these machines; therefore, they must be well-versed in the different types.
21. Oxygen Therapy
Oxygen therapy involves the administration of supplemental oxygen to a patient. This is often indicated when a patient has a low oxygen saturation level (i.e., hypoxemia).
There are several different types of oxygen delivery devices, which must be understood by respiratory therapists and students.
22. Breathing Treatments
Breathing treatments are administered by respiratory therapists to deliver an aerosol medication to the patient’s lungs. It involves the use of a nebulizer, which is a device that converts liquid medication into a fine mist.
This is one of the most common treatment modalities performed by respiratory therapists. Students will learn how to properly administer these treatments during clinical rotations.
23. Chest Physical Therapy
Chest physical therapy (CPT) is a therapeutic modality used to help clear secretions, improve ventilation, and strengthen breathing muscles. It involves different techniques, such as postural drainage, percussion, and vibration.
Respiratory therapists must be well-versed in all aspects of CPT in order to properly treat their patients. Students will often perform these techniques during clinical rotations.
24. Airway Suctioning
Airway suctioning is a procedure that is performed to remove mucus and secretions from a patient’s airway. It’s a common task performed by respiratory therapists on a daily basis.
Many are grossed out by the thought of suctioning; however, it is an important and necessary procedure. If you can’t handle it, respiratory therapy school is probably not for you.
25. Obstructive Lung Diseases
Obstructive lung diseases are a group of conditions that constrict the airways, which makes it difficult to breathe. Some examples include asthma and COPD, which affect millions of people worldwide.
Respiratory therapists must be well-versed in the different types of obstructive lung diseases and how to properly treat these conditions.
26. Restrictive Lung Diseases
Restrictive lung diseases are a group of conditions that limit the expansion of the lungs. This results in less air being exhaled (i.e., ventilation), which causes issues in the respiratory system.
Some examples of restrictive lung diseases include interstitial lung disease and pulmonary fibrosis. Respiratory therapists must also be familiar with these conditions.
27. Smoking Cessation
Smoking cessation is an important aspect of respiratory care. This is because smoking is one of the leading causes of preventable death, and many respiratory conditions are caused or exacerbated by smoking.
As such, respiratory therapists must understand the importance of quitting smoking and be able to provide education and counseling to their patients.
28. Asthma Education
Asthma is an obstructive lung disease that affects millions of people worldwide. It is a chronic condition that can be managed, but not cured.
Therefore, respiratory therapists are highly involved in the treatment of patients with asthma. This includes educating patients and their families about how to manage the condition and what to do in the case of an asthma attack.
29. COPD Management
COPD is a progressive lung disease that is caused by long-term exposure to irritants, such as cigarette smoke. Respiratory therapists care for patients with COPD by helping them manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.
In respiratory therapy school, students learn about the different types of COPD, how to assess patients for the severity of their disease, and how to develop a treatment plan that includes both medication and lifestyle changes.
30. Lung Cancer
Lung cancer is a major public health problem in the United States that causes approximately 25% of all cancer deaths. It can develop in nonsmokers; however, most cases occur in those who smoke.
Respiratory therapists play an important role in the treatment of lung cancer patients. Therefore, students must learn about this disease while in respiratory therapy school.
31. Lung Infections
There are several types of lung infections that affect the respiratory system and can impact a patient’s ability to breathe. As such, respiratory therapists must be familiar with these conditions and know how to treat them.
32. Pleural Diseases
Pleural diseases are conditions that affect the pleura, which is a thin membrane that surrounds the lungs. These conditions can be caused by infection, inflammation, or trauma.
The two most common types are pleural effusion and pneumothorax. Respiratory therapists must know how to recognize, diagnose, and treat these conditions.
33. Sleep Disorders
A sleep disorder is a condition that affects the quality, duration, timing, or impact of a patient’s ability to sleep or function properly while awake.
Some examples include sleep apnea, insomnia, and restless legs syndrome. Respiratory therapists must have a basic understanding of sleep physiology and how to treat these disorders.
Pneumonia is a lung infection that can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. It’s a serious condition that can lead to death, especially in elderly patients or those with underlying health conditions.
Respiratory therapists must know how to recognize the symptoms of pneumonia and how to treat it. They also need to be familiar with the different types of pneumonia, as each type requires a different treatment approach.
35. Congestive Heart Failure
Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a condition in which the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. This can lead to fluid buildup in the lungs and other organs.
The accumulation of fluid in the lungs is called pulmonary edema. Respiratory therapists must know how to recognize and treat this condition.
36. Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that is produced when certain fuels are burned. Carbon monoxide poisoning can occur when people are exposed to high levels of this gas.
This is a serious condition that can lead to death without prompt treatment. Therefore, respiratory therapists must know how to recognize the symptoms and treat patients with this condition.
37. Neuromuscular Diseases
Neuromuscular diseases are conditions that affect the nerves and muscles. These conditions can lead to difficulty breathing because of muscle weakness or paralysis.
38. Thoracic Imaging
Thoracic imaging refers to the radiographic imaging of the thorax, which includes the chest and lungs. This includes the following types:
- Chest Radiograph
- Computed Tomography (CT)
- Ventilation–Perfusion (VQ) Scan
- Positron Emission Tomography (PET)
Respiratory therapists are required to have a basic understanding of each type. Therefore, this is something that students must learn in respiratory therapy school.
39. Breathing Patterns
Respiratory therapists are skilled professionals in assessing and interpreting a patient’s breathing pattern. This includes identifying the different types, such as eupnea, hyperpnea, apnea, and apneustic breathing.
This helps with the diagnosis and treatment of the patient’s underlying condition. Therefore, students must learn how to identify different breathing patterns to be successful as respiratory therapists.
40. Assist in the Delivery of Newborns
Respiratory therapists are sometimes called upon to assist in the delivery of newborns. This includes performing resuscitation if necessary and ensuring that the infant is breathing properly.
This topic is covered in detail in the neonatal courses of the respiratory therapy program. So, if you’re interested in working with infants, this is something to look forward to in school.
41. Electrocardiograms (ECG)
An electrocardiogram is a test that measures the electrical activity of the heart. It is often used to diagnose heart conditions or to monitor the heart’s response to treatment.
Respiratory therapists are often called upon to perform this test. This includes knowing how and where to place the electrodes on the patient’s skin.
This is a skill that respiratory therapy students must learn while in school. This often involves practicing on mannequins or even on each other.
42. Fetal Lung Development
Fetal lung development is the process by which the lungs develop during pregnancy. This is a crucial process, as the lungs must be fully developed for the baby to survive outside of the womb.
Respiratory therapists must have a thorough understanding of this process. This is because they may be called upon to provide care for mothers and babies with lung conditions.
43. Infant Respiratory Disorders
Several respiratory disorders can affect an infant’s lungs, making breathing difficult. This includes conditions such as:
Respiratory therapists are required to have a high level of knowledge on how to treat and provide care for infants with lung diseases.
44. Weaning from Mechanical Ventilation
Ventilator weaning is the process of gradually decreasing a patient’s dependence on the machine. This is done when the patient’s condition has improved, and they can breathe on their own.
Respiratory therapists play a vital role in this process. They assess the patient’s progress and make recommendations to the physician on when to remove the patient from mechanical ventilation.
45. Lung Expansion Therapy
Lung expansion therapy refers to several respiratory care procedures that are designed to treat and prevent atelectasis. This is a condition in which the tiny air sacs in the lungs collapse.
Respiratory therapists are trained in performing these procedures to help keep the patient’s lungs inflated while preventing alveolar collapse.
46. Humidification Therapy
Humidification therapy is a treatment method that involves adding water vapor to an inspired gas to treat a pulmonary disease. It is commonly used to help loosen up thick mucus and secretions from the patient’s airways.
Respiratory therapists are experts at administering this type of treatment, and this is yet another skill that students are required to learn in school.
A bronchoscopy is a procedure in which a flexible tube is inserted into the lungs. It contains a camera and light source, which allows the physician to visualize the inside of the patient’s airways.
Respiratory therapists are needed to assist with this procedure. This includes preparing the patient and equipment, as well as monitoring the patient during and after the bronchoscopy.
48. Hemodynamic Monitoring
Hemodynamic monitoring is the process of measuring various parameters related to blood flow and pressure. In other words, this provides a measurement of the pressure inside a patient’s heart and blood vessels.
Respiratory therapists must be familiar with the different types and parameters, and students are required to learn about this topic in school.
49. Extracorporeal Life Support
Extracorporeal life support is an advanced form of therapy where blood is pumped outside the body for oxygenation and then returned to circulation. This is indicated in severe cases where the patient’s heart and lungs are inadequate.
50. Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation
Cardiopulmonary rehabilitation is a program designed to improve the health and well-being of a patient with a condition of the heart or lungs. The primary goal is to help participants return to their normal activities of daily living as soon as possible.
Respiratory therapists are typically involved in designing and administering these programs. They work with other members of the rehabilitation team to help patients reach their goals.
51. Airway Management
Airway management is an important process in maintaining ventilation so that gas exchange can occur. This allows a patient to take in oxygen while removing carbon dioxide.
Respiratory therapists are responsible for keeping the patient’s upper airway free and clear of foreign substances so that air can flow into and out of the lungs. The different types of airway management include suctioning, airway maintenance, establishing an artificial airway, and extubation.
52. Tracheostomy Care
A tracheostomy is a surgical procedure in which an opening is made in the neck so that a tube can be inserted into the trachea. This is indicated when a patient is expected to be on the mechanical ventilator for an extended period of time.
Respiratory therapists are responsible for the care of the tracheostomy, which includes cleaning the site, changing the tube, and suctioning the patient.
53. Gas Exchange
Gas exchange is the physiological process of diffusion where oxygen moves from the lungs to the bloodstream during inhalation, and carbon dioxide (CO2) moves from the blood to the lungs for removal during exhalation.
This is a fundamental topic that must be understood by anyone working in the field of respiratory care.
54. Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome
Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) is a condition that occurs when the lungs are severely damaged and cannot provide enough oxygen to the body. It results in several oxygenation issues that can lead to respiratory failure.
Respiratory therapists must recognize the signs and symptoms of ARDS and be able to recommend the appropriate treatment modality. Respiratory therapy students will learn the ins and outs of this condition while in school.
55. Medical Gas Therapy
Medical gas therapy is a type of treatment in which gases are administered to a patient. Each type of medical gas, including oxygen, is considered to be a drug. This means that it must be administered with the approval of a qualified physician or respiratory therapist.
When administering medical gas therapy, RTs must consider the type of gas, dosage, and delivery method. Each may vary depending on the patient’s condition.
56. Airway Clearance Therapy
Airway clearance therapy (ACT) is a type of treatment that helps to remove secretions from the airways of the lungs. This helps improve gas exchange so that the patient is able to take in oxygen while removing carbon dioxide.
The different types of airway clearance therapy include:
- Chest physiotherapy
- PEP therapy
- Autogenic drainage
- High-frequency chest wall compression
- Intrapulmonary percussive ventilation
- Mechanical insufflation-exsufflation
Respiratory therapists must be able to assess the patient’s needs and recommend the appropriate type of airway clearance therapy. This is an important topic that students will learn in school as well.
57. Formulas and Calculations
Respiratory therapists are responsible for more than just direct patient care. They possess several skills that are unknown to some, including the ability to use formulas and calculations.
But, before you freak out, just know that you do not have to be a mathematician to be a respiratory therapist.
However, some basic arithmetic skills are necessary, including the ability to plug numbers into a formula to perform simple calculations. This is useful for calculating minute ventilation, temperature conversions, and determining a patient’s ideal body weight (IBW).
Extubation is the process of removing the artificial airway from the patient’s trachea to discontinue mechanical ventilation. This is done when the patient’s condition has improved and they are able to breathe on their own.
Respiratory therapists play a vital role in this process.
They assess the patient’s progress and make recommendations to the physician on when the patient is ready to stop receiving ventilatory support.
59. How to Prepare for the Board Exams
In order to become a licensed respiratory therapist, students must pass two separate board exams offered by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). This includes:
Both of these exams are extremely challenging, and students must be well-prepared in order to earn a passing score. Most respiratory therapy schools offer review courses to help students prepare for the exams.
However, the responsibility ultimately falls on the student to make sure they are fully prepared before taking the exams. We’re proud to say that our exam prep materials have helped thousands of students pass both exams on their first attempt.
What to Expect in Respiratory Therapy School?
As you can see, respiratory therapy school covers a wide range of topics. From diseases and conditions of the respiratory system to pharmacology and treatment modalities, students will receive a comprehensive education.
It’s definitely not easy, but it is necessary for becoming a successful respiratory therapist. With the right attitude and determination, anyone can succeed in this field.
Are you up for the challenge?
If so, then respiratory therapy school might just be the right fit for you. Thanks for reading; good luck, and, as always, breathe easy, my friend.
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.
- Egan’s Fundamentals of Respiratory Care. 12th ed., Mosby, 2020.
- Clinical Application of Mechanical Ventilation. 4th ed., Cengage Learning, 2013.
- Pilbeam’s Mechanical Ventilation: Physiological and Clinical Applications. 6th ed., Mosby, 2015.
- Mosby’s Respiratory Care Equipment. 10th ed., Mosby, 2017.
- Rau’s Respiratory Care Pharmacology. 10th ed., Mosby, 2019.
- Wilkins’ Clinical Assessment in Respiratory Care. 8th ed., Mosby, 2017.
- Cardiopulmonary Anatomy & Physiology: Essentials of Respiratory Care. 7th ed., Cengage Learning, 2019.
- Clinical Manifestations and Assessment of Respiratory Disease. 8th ed., Mosby, 2019.
- Ruppel’s Manual of Pulmonary Function Testing. 11th ed., Mosby, 2017.
- Neonatal and Pediatric Respiratory Care. 5th ed., Saunders, 2018.