Respiratory Therapist vs Nurse (RN vs RRT)

Respiratory Therapist vs Nurse: Which is Better? (RN vs RRT)

by | Updated: Apr 4, 2024

The debate is officially on! It’s a question that comes up quite often: Which job is better: respiratory therapist or nurse?

Are you a student looking to enter the medical field but can’t decide? Or maybe you’re already a registered nurse or respiratory therapist looking to change careers? In this article, we’re going to take a look at the pros and cons of each profession.

Either way, the goal of this article is to educate you on the good, bad, and ugly of both nursing and respiratory therapy. So, if you’re ready, let’s get into it.

Disclaimer: Before we get into all the details, you should know that BOTH are amazing careers. Respiratory therapists and nurses are both vital members of the healthcare team. With that being said, this is a respiratory therapy website, and I am a registered respiratory therapist (RRT). Therefore, naturally, I am somewhat biased towards the field of respiratory care. This is just something to consider as you read through the article. All opinions expressed here are based on my personal view.

What is the Difference Between a Nurse and a Respiratory Therapist?

There are several differences between a respiratory therapist and a nurse. They are two different fields of study and practice. The main similarity is the fact that both are respected professions that emphasize providing the best care possible for their patients.

Nurse vs Respiratory Therapist - which is better

Nurses do have a broader scope of practice. They must consider the whole patient, thus multiple body systems. Respiratory therapists, on the other hand, concentrate on the cardiopulmonary system. This means that they focus specifically on patients with conditions of the heart and lungs.

Nurses are provided with a general education of the entire human body. Respiratory Therapists are provided with a more detailed education of the cardiopulmonary system.

What Tasks Do Respiratory Therapists and Nurses Perform?

To make an accurate comparison of tasks that each profession performs, I thought a side-by-side chart would give a good visual.

Nurse Respiratory Therapist
Patient Assessment Nurses are responsible for the entire body. Respiratory therapists primarily focus on the patient’s breathing.
General Patient Care Nurses are required to help with the activities of daily living, including bathing, changing, cleaning, etc. Respiratory therapists are required to perform oral care when a patient is intubated and receiving mechanical ventilation. They also provide tracheostomy care when an airway is in place.
Medication Administration Nurses can administer a wide range of medications and routes depending on various patient illnesses. Respiratory therapists primarily administer cardiopulmonary medications, usually via nebulization.
Patient Diagnosis Nurses help develop a diagnosis, formulate a plan of care, and implement the needed interventions. They communicate directly with physicians concerning the patient’s needs. Respiratory therapists also help develop a diagnosis, formulate a plan of care, and implement the needed interventions. They also communicate directly with physicians concerning the patient’s needs.
Discharge Planning Nurses are always involved when a patient is discharged. Respiratory therapists are only involved when the patient needs oxygen or other types of respiratory therapy at home.
Patient Response to Therapy Nurses provide post-treatment care and evaluate the patient’s response to treatments and advise or request changes if needed. Respiratory therapists also provide post-treatment care and evaluate the patient’s response to treatments and advise or request changes if needed.
Mechanical Ventilation Nurses are not trained to manage mechanical ventilators, BiPAP, CPAP, or other adjuncts. They are, however, usually provided with a general education of ventilatory support but must call RT for assistance when an issue arises. Respiratory therapists are fully trained to operate mechanical ventilators, BiPAP, and CPAP devices. This includes initiation, management, and weaning from ventilatory support.
Needle Sticks Nurses are licensed and trained to stick veins. They can initiate IV therapy for fluid management and medication deliverance. They are trained to give shots as well. Nurses typically are not trained to stick arteries. Respiratory therapists are licensed and trained to stick arteries. They can draw a sample of arterial blood to assess a patient’s oxygenation and ventilation status. Respiratory therapists are typically not trained to stick veins.
Electrocardiogram (EKG) Nurses are trained to perform an Electrocardiogram (EKG) on all kinds of patients. Respiratory therapists are trained to perform an Electrocardiogram (EKG) on all kinds of patients.
Pulmonary Function Testing (PFT) Nurses are not trained to perform pulmonary function tests. Respiratory therapists are trained to perform and assist with pulmonary function tests.

As demonstrated by the table above, the two professions perform many of the same tasks. Keep in mind, both nurses and respiratory therapists perform many other types of tasks that aren’t mentioned in this table.

These are just a few of the typical duties that overlap in the field of nursing and respiratory therapy.

Nurses and Respiratory Therapists Working Together

Nurses usually perform more tasks in a day than a respiratory therapist due to the fact they must consider the whole patient. Respiratory therapists are typically more limited in the scope of practice by facility protocols and permissions.

While Respiratory therapists may not be in charge of body systems outside of the heart and lungs, they still must use observational and assessment skills to notice when a problem arises.

For example, a respiratory therapist is not directly responsible for managing a patient’s fluid levels. However, they may notice wet lung sounds and jugular venous distention, which indicates that the patient is receiving too many fluids. In this case, they could recommend that the nurse consider administering a diuretic medication.

The same thing applies to nurses as well. nurses can make specific recommendations if they notice that a patient has developed a respiratory issue.

What are the Requirements for Respiratory Therapy and Nursing School?

Both professions, in general, require at least a one or two-year degree in order to practice. As previously mentioned, after graduating from an accredited program, you must pass the licensure board exams to obtain the appropriate credentials which will allow you to apply for a license in your state. 

Many don’t realize that both educational programs are very similarly ranked. To give a simple example, just look at their names:

  • Registered Nurse (RN)
  • Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT)

Both careers provide the professional with respectable credentials, although nursing is far more widely known by the general public than respiratory therapy.

Nursing Requirements

A nurse can being as an LVN/LPN. An LVN is a Licensed Vocational Nurse. These nurses usually did not attend a traditional “brick and mortar” school for nursing and may have tested to get their license through reciprocity.

This means that they worked in another health field and had enough school credits to challenge the LVN-NCLEX exam. Most states do not allow nurses who receive their LVN this way to practice outside of that state. New York and California are two states that have these types of nurses, and they cannot practice outside of the state without having to jump through a lot of hoops.

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An LPN, or Licensed Practical Nurse, is a trained nurse who must go through a program that typically lasts 1 – 2 years. The length depends on how many pre-requisites were completed before entering school.

More commonly known, the field of nursing also has registered nurses (RN). They are required to attend and pass a traditional program that provides 2 – 4 years of education. After passing the program, the nurse then becomes eligible to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam.

Registered nurses have a much broader range of practice than their LVN or LPN counterparts.

Nurse vs Respiratory Therapist - which is better

Respiratory Therapy Requirements

A respiratory therapist usually attends school for 2 – 4 years as well. After graduating from a CoARC Accredited Program, you become eligible to take the licensure board exams.

There are two exams to pass in order to obtain the RRT credential:

The TMC Exam offers two passing scores, a low-cut score and a high-cut score. To become eligible to take the CSE, you must first pass the TMC with the high-cut score. Then, if you make a passing score on the CSE, you will have earned the RRT credential.

It’s still possible to practice as a CRT in the United States. With that said, each year, more states are requiring applicants to have earned the RRT credential.

Which School Program is Harder?

When talking about the difficulty of nursing and respiratory therapy school, it’s tough to quantify because there are a lot of variables at play. Either program could be more difficult for some than for others.

Not to mention, some schools simply have more strict requirements than others. Taking that into consideration, it’s reasonable to say that both programs are relatively difficult. Neither one can be classified as easy.

In all likelihood, the difficulty of each program is probably about even.

Both careers have general education requirements, such as English, electives, anatomy and physiology, biology, and chemistry. Also, both programs require clinical rotations with certified instructors as well.

Most importantly, both careers require passing the licensing board exams to practice in all 50 states.

Is Respiratory Therapy School Harder than Nursing School

Generally speaking, both programs are equally challenging in their own way. But, through my experience, I’ve noticed the following:

Nursing school seems to be more difficult than respiratory therapy school.

Unfortunately, I do not have any evidence or raw data to back this up. From speaking with medical professionals who have gone through both programs, most claim that nursing school was more challenging (for them) than the respiratory therapy program.

Again, this is definitely not always the case. It really depends on your location and the program that you’re interested in. This is just a generalization that I’ve noticed over the years.

Nurses are responsible for knowing and learning a broader scope of the entire body. Respiratory therapists are generally more focused on the heart and lungs. Therefore, nurses tend to learn a little about a lot, whereas respiratory therapists tend to learn a lot about a little.

This is definitely something to consider if you’re trying to decide between becoming a nurse or respiratory therapist. Of course, do your own research to determine which program would be a better fit for you.

What is the Cost of Nursing and Respiratory Therapy School?

According to College Tuition Compare, the average cost for respiratory therapy school is $4,174 for in-state residents and $10,861 for out-of-state students.

According to Cost Figures, the average cost of tuition for nursing school is $3,000 to $14,000 per year from community colleges to become a registered nurse (RN).

What is the Cost of Nursing and Respiratory Therapy School How Much for Tuition

The BSN option for nurses is more expensive. It’s the bachelor’s degree option that can be obtained from a 4-year university. The cost per year ranges widely depending on the school and institution. But in general, the BSN option is more expensive. 

Keep in mind, though, that a bachelor’s degree in nursing does offer more advancement opportunities. This partly explains why the tuition cost is much more.

With that said, if you know that you only want to practice as a registered respiratory therapist (RRT) or registered nurse (RN), the 2-year programs that community colleges offer are a great way to keep costs as low as possible.

Here are lists of all the programs by state:

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Here are some examples:

Different programs have different requirements when it comes to expenses. This is just something to keep in mind. As an example, here is our top recommended stethoscope. You can click the link to check the most current price.

Hopefully, this can give you an idea of the cost of some of the tools that you will be required to have. 

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What is the Job Outlook for Respiratory Therapists and Nurses?

Respiratory therapy is a newer field compared to nursing, which is why it’s not as widely known. With that said, both fields are rapidly growing and gaining more recognition each year.

As the “baby boomer” generation continues to age, even more nurses and respiratory therapists will be needed to keep up with the demand of new patients. Therefore, it’s safe to say that the job outlook is excellent for both careers.

According to the BLS, both nursing and respiratory therapy are expected to grow at much faster rates than average:

  • Respiratory therapist job outlook (2018 – 2028):  21% Expected Growth
  • Nurse job outlook (2018 – 2028):  12% Expected Growth

Both fields are rapidly growing, but respiratory therapy seems to be growing at a faster rate than nursing. This is likely due to an increase in the prevalence of COPD and smoking-related conditions.

Who Earns a Higher Salary?

Does a respiratory therapist make more than a nurse? Or do nurses earn a higher salary? To answer these questions, it really just depends on the state and institution where you work. Generally speaking, both nurses and respiratory therapists do quite well when it comes to salary.

Here are the average median salaries according to the BLS:

  • Nurse – $73,300 per year
  • Respiratory therapist – $61,330 per year

On average, nurses tend to earn a higher salary than respiratory therapists. Again, keep in mind that average wages are very dependent on location, among many other factors.

Some states simply pay more than others. Thankfully, though, respiratory therapists and nurses both earn respectable salaries.

Respiratory Therapist vs Nurse Salary - Who Makes More Money

Which Job is More Stressful?

Both professions deal with sick people in critical situations. This means that, naturally, both professions have their moments of high-stress situations.

Responding to a “code blue” is an example. This usually means that a patient has stopped breathing or doesn’t have a pulse. The entire team is involved in performing CPR, but the respiratory therapist will most likely be the one responsible for securing the breathing tube into the airway.

This process is known as intubation and can be very tense and stressful. It requires the ability to keep cool under pressure.

Normally, the nurse is not the one running the code. That is the job of the physician. Nurses are responsible for taking notes, assisting with compressions, and administering proper medications.

The respiratory therapist is also responsible for setting up the patient on the mechanical ventilator for life support. 

Is is Stressful Being a Nurse or Respiratory Therapist

This is not to say that nurses do not have intense situations. They definitely do. But if you’re an adrenaline junkie, there is usually never a shortage of excitement when working as a respiratory therapist in most hospitals.

Working as a nurse is stressful in its own way. For example, there’s a common joke in the healthcare industry that nurses take the blame for everything. Because of their job requirements, they bear a great deal of responsibility.

They are also the ones who have the most direct communication with the patient and their family members. Unfortunately, this means that they often take the blame for things outside of their control, such as long ER wait times and clerical errors. Both professionals are required to deal with difficult patients at times.

Which Job is More Exciting?

Many variables must be considered when it comes to on-the-job excitement. Generally speaking, it depends on your individual facility and area that you work in.

For example, an emergency room respiratory therapist will likely have a more exciting job than a nurse who works in a clinic.

And vice versa if the roles were reversed.

Even though this question is subjective, the level of action and excitement simply depends on where you work.

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Another benefit of working in the medical field for an adrenaline junkie is that nurses and respiratory therapists can work on flight teams after a few years of critical care experience. This entails flying in medical helicopters to treat patients in emergency situations.

Becoming part of a flight team requires a significant amount of extra training, and it’s often a competitive field to enter. But it (definitely) is an excellent option for both nurses and respiratory therapists to consider.

So, in terms of what job is more exciting, I would say that they are equal. Both professions can have exciting days and not-so-exciting days. It all just depends on your assignment, where you work, and what is happening at that particular moment.

What are the Career Advancement Opportunities for Nurses and Respiratory Therapists?

Both careers offer career advancement options, but in general, there seem to be more opportunities for nurses than for respiratory therapists.

Career Advancement Opportunities for Nurses:

Nurses can earn a bachelor’s degree to work in hospital administration and management. They can also advance their education with a master’s degree to become a family nurse practitioner (FNP). This allows them to practice under the supervision of a physician or even alone in some states.

There are even more advancement opportunities for nurses, such as nurse anesthetists (CRNA), pediatric and neonatal specialists, nurse midwives, and educators. There is even a doctorate of nursing practice (DNP) that can be pursued.

Career advancement opportunities are widely abundant for Nurses.

Career Advancement for Nurses and Respiratory Therapists

Career Advancement Opportunities for Respiratory Therapists:

Respiratory therapy is a relatively new field compared to Nursing. This is one reason why there aren’t quite as many advancement opportunities.

A practitioner can earn their CRT and RRT credentials in respiratory care. They can also earn a bachelor’s degree in order to work in hospital administration and management. In fact, more and more bachelor’s degree programs for respiratory therapy have been opening over recent years.

Another advancement that is common for respiratory therapists is to obtain a master’s degree to become a physician’s assistant (PA). This path is similar to a nurse practitioner for nurses.

Respiratory Therapist Career Advancement Physicians Assistant

If you see yourself as the entrepreneurial type, a respiratory therapist can start a home care company. These companies supply equipment, clinical services, respiratory diagnostic services, and patient education on various medications and therapies.

And lastly, a respiratory therapist can gain the following specialty credentials through the National Board of Respiratory Care:

  • Adult Critical Care Specialist (ACCS)
  • Neonatal/Pediatric Specialist (NPS)
  • Sleep Disorders Specialist (SDS)
  • Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist (RPFT)

These allow for specialization and advancement in certain areas of respiratory care. Not to mention, certain credentials may be a requirement for some positions. 


What is an RRT Nurse?

Registered respiratory therapist nurses, or RRT nurses, are registered nurses who are also licensed to practice respiratory care. They have graduated from both nursing and respiratory therapy school and have passed the licensure board exams to earn credentials in both professions.

In most cases, an RRT nurse is hired individually as either an RRT or RN. However, they are also able to practice both skillsets in some facilities.

Additionally, the term RRT nurse can be used to describe a Rapid Response Team nurse.

These are registered nurses who are vital members of the rapid response team, which is a specified group of medical professionals who respond to emergencies within the hospital setting.

Is Respiratory Therapy Better than Nursing?

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. It depends on the needs, wants, and personality of each individual.

There are pros and cons to both professions. Some may find a better fit as a respiratory therapist because it is more science-based. Nurses may find bedside care and patient interaction more rewarding.

Both professions are important in the healthcare field, and both offer unique opportunities and challenges. It is up to each individual to decide which profession is right for them.

Final Thoughts

Well, what’s the final verdict? Which career field is better? Is respiratory therapy better than nursing? Or should you stick with becoming a nurse?

That depends on you!

It’s up to you to weigh all the pros and cons to decide which field is a better fit for your lifestyle and personality. I’ve given my opinion that was crafted from experiences working as a respiratory therapist. However, it’s essential to do your own research and take everything into consideration before making a decision.

Whatever you decide, just know that:

Both are amazing, respectable careers!

You really can’t go wrong when choosing between a career as a nurse or respiratory therapist. Like any career, nursing and respiratory therapy both have positives and negatives. There will be really good days and really bad days.

But just know that, by becoming a nurse or respiratory therapist, ultimately, you will gain a well-paying and respectable career that provides an incredible amount of fulfillment. You’ll get to wake up each day knowing that you’re making a difference in the lives of others.

What more could you ask for?

Thank you so much for reading all the way to the end. I wish you the best of luck on your journey and as always, breathe easy, my friend. 

Pavanne Halpin MS BS RRT Author

Written by:

Pavanne Halpin, MS, BS, RRT
Pavanne Halpin is a registered respiratory therapist from Chattanooga, TN. She's a retired Navy hospitalman who has a bachelor's degree in cardiopulmonary science and a master's degree in healthcare administration.


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