The debate is officially on! It’s a question that comes up quite often: Whose job is better, Respiratory Therapists or Nurses? Let’s take a look at some of the pro and cons of each profession. Choosing a career in the medical field can be a daunting task, with respiratory therapy and nursing being two of the best and most popular options. Now let’s take a look at the good, bad, and the ugly of each career, and decide which is the better job.

For those interested in a career in the health field, two options generally stand out: becoming a registered nurse (RN), or a registered respiratory therapist (RRT). Both registered nurses and respiratory therapists have the benefit of being able to work in a variety of settings, such as inpatient (in a hospital) and outpatient, and have plenty of job flexibility, but what are the real differences between the two? Which is the “better” option for someone looking to enter the health field?

What is the difference between a nurse and a respiratory therapist?

 

The work differs greatly between RRTs and RNs. Nurses do, in general, have a broader scope of practice than respiratory therapists. Nurses are charged with head-to-toe assessment, monitoring the patient’s condition, medication administration, patient education, performing interventions according to the patient’s care plan, and communicating with doctors, pharmacists, and other staff. I’ve often heard nurses state that they feel responsible for everything that someone else isn’t responsible for managing. Yes, the job often times entails cleaning up all types of bodily fluids (💩).

Respiratory therapists, on the other hand, are not responsible for the head-to-toe care of the patient. The training respiratory therapists receive is highly specialized in cardiopulmonary medicine, which focuses on diseases of the lungs and heart (and as a therapist, generally involves less dirty work than nursing). Respiratory therapists mostly care for patients with COPD, asthma, pneumonia, and essentially any other disease or illness affecting the lungs and airway. We assess the patient’s respiratory and cardiac status and administer different types of therapies and treatments to help improve their status. We also frequently communicate with doctors, reporting their recommendations for treatments or changes in treatments.

What is the purpose of a Respiratory Therapist?

 

The health and medical field is becoming increasingly specialized as more knowledge is gained about physiology, disease processes, and treatment options. In order to adjust to this increasing amount of information, healthcare professionals are tending to specialize or focus on one area of healthcare. The respiratory therapy field is a result of this. As knowledge in cardiopulmonary medicine increases, the field becomes more complex. Healthcare professionals who specialize in cardiopulmonary care became necessary, and thus, the respiratory therapist was born. This broadening of the healthcare field is not going to stop. Nurses will have a more difficult time with its expansion due to their broad scope of practice, and being responsible for caring for and monitoring all body systems.

What is the job outlook for Respiratory Therapists?

 

Respiratory therapy is a relatively new field compared to nursing, which had its beginning around the Civil War. Those who choose respiratory therapy get to be part of a field that is rapidly growing and gaining recognition. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, respiratory therapists will enjoy 12% job growth between 2014 and 2024. The average job growth rate for all career fields is 7%, placing respiratory therapy growth above average! The American Lung Association reports that over 11 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, a chronic lung disorder. There are many more who have not been diagnosed but will require treatment. The most critical person on a COPD patient’s medical treatment team is the respiratory therapist. Also, as the Baby Boomer generation ages, even more, respiratory therapists will be needed to keep up with the demand.

Respiratory Therapy is more specialized than Nursing

 

Now, while nurses do have a broad scope of practice in comparison to respiratory therapists, there are many benefits to respiratory therapy. In my own career, I’ve met several respiratory therapists who were formerly registered nurses. One thing I’ve heard consistently is that they feel better able to manage the stresses of their job because their training and job descriptions are more specialized- they’re able to focus on pulmonary medicine as opposed to being responsible for so many other facets of patient care. Respiratory therapists have the benefit of specialization – being able to focus on one area and do it well.

Nurses take all the blame

 

I’ve also been told by RN to RT converts that they do not miss being blamed for things that go wrong. Oftentimes it’s the nurse that takes the blame for things such as a long wait in the emergency room lobby, or a patient having to wait awhile for a new medication because an order needs to be placed by the physician, and then checked by pharmacy, etc. In an inpatient setting, nurses also generally care for several patients at the bedside for their entire shift. Nurses are also responsible for supervising nurse aides and techs. Even though tasks may be delegated to aides, if the task isn’t completed, the responsibility falls directly on the nurse. Respiratory therapists visit patients to assess, educate, and administer treatments, but are not responsible for the coordination of most of their care – this is also a frequently heard “plus” to respiratory therapy.

Let’s talk about charting

 

Respiratory therapists are frequently more able to spend more time with patients than nurses, simply due to the fact that RNs are required to chart so extensively on anything from patient safety, emotional needs being met, and assessments, to writing shift report notes. While you’ll certainly still have to chart as a respiratory therapist, the charting will be more focused. We don’t like to chart the same thing ten different times in ten different places.

Is nursing more stressful than respiratory therapy?

 

Respiratory therapists certainly do have their moments of stress. Medical care follows the airway-breathing-circulation-disability (ABCD) prioritization model. What this means is that respiratory-related events, such as respiratory distress, take priority in medical care over many other medical emergencies. Respiratory therapists respond to all “code blues”, or situations in which a patient has stopped breathing, is pulseless, or both. In emergency situations such as these, a respiratory therapist may be required to intubate a patient, which entails inserting a breathing tube into their airway. Intubation is a skill that most nurses are not trained in. Respiratory therapists are also trained in managing ventilators and their settings. So respiratory therapists need to be able to focus and keep cool under pressure during all emergency situations, such as code blues. Being responsible for caring for the number one and number two priorities (airway and breathing) in medical care is a huge responsibility.

Is nursing school harder than respiratory therapy school?

 

The education required to become a registered nurse and a registered respiratory therapist bears some similarities. Both programs require the standard “gen-eds”, such as English and electives, anatomy and physiology classes, biology, chemistry in some cases, and completion of clinical rotations with instructors. Both RNs and RTs are required to pass state-level licensure exams in order to practice. As mentioned already, nurses are responsible for knowing and learning a broader scope or the entire body, while respiratory therapists are generally more focused on the heart and lungs. In all likelihood, the difficulty of each program is about even. You will dive into deeper detail in respiratory therapy school, but in nursing school, you will be required to know more information.

After graduation and licensure, respiratory therapists are able to further specialize in some areas. Some examples include becoming certified in pediatrics, critical care, or sleep studies. The educational requirements to become an RN have been shifting toward the BSN, a bachelor’s- level science degree. Currently, in most states, an associate degree is required to become a respiratory therapist. Some respiratory therapists do hold bachelor’s degrees. As a result of the growth of the respiratory therapy field, there is an increasing number of colleges that are offering master’s degrees in respiratory therapy. These programs are generally geared toward those who are interested in becoming a respiratory therapist manager or program director.

Do nurses or respiratory therapists get paid more?

 

Salary-wise, both nurses and respiratory therapists do quite well. The BLS reports an average RT salary of $58,670. For a career in the healthcare field that at this point requires only an associate degree, that is quite a considerable sum of money. The BLS provides a yearly average salary figure of $68,450 for RNs. While the average pay for RNs is higher, the degree requirements for nurses are moving toward a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. In some states, it’s already a requirement for licensure. The BLS already reports a BSN being the average entry-level degree for nursing. It’s possible to increase your salary as a respiratory therapist, in some cases, by pursuing higher education. As a respiratory therapist, you’ll enjoy a well-paying, and well-respected career in the healthcare field, but nurses in most cases bring home more bacon.

Whose job is more exciting?

 

It all comes down to your individual job and area that you work in. Obviously, an emergency room nurse is going to have a more exciting job day in and day out than a respiratory therapist doing PFTs in a clinical. And vice versa. An ICU respiratory therapist will likely get more action than a nurse is a doctor’s office. So the level of action and excitement just depends on where you work. In general, respiratory therapists must respond to “code blues” in most hospitals, so there is constant action to be had in this profession.

Another benefit of working in the medical field for the adrenaline junkie is that nurses and respiratory therapists are able to work on flight teams after a few years of critical care experience (working in the ICU, ER, or both). 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 a competitive field to get into, but is definitely a nice option for both nurses and respiratory therapists to consider.

Final thoughts

 

There are many reasons to become a respiratory therapist as opposed to a registered nurse. Respiratory therapy is a booming, young career field and will see continued growth for years to come. While both professions are highly respected, and we certainly appreciate our nurse friends, respiratory therapists will enjoy expertise in one area of medicine, as opposed to being responsible for the patient’s head-to-toe wellbeing. Caring for the respiratory and cardiac systems is a significant responsibility as the respiratory system receives priority in medical care. As a respiratory therapist, you’ll be able to spend more time at the bedside with patients, helping to improve their health and quality of life.

In general, you really can’t go wrong choosing between a career in nursing or respiratory therapy. Both jobs, like any, have their ups and downs. By becoming a nurse or respiratory therapist, ultimately you will gain a well-paying and respectable career where you can live a fulfilled life knowing you are making a difference helping people each and every day. What more could you ask for?