Respiratory therapy is a rewarding and essential profession, playing an irreplaceable role in the medical field.
As students navigate their way through respiratory therapy school, they often face various challenges that can make the journey seem overwhelming.
We understand the importance of addressing these struggles to help students succeed in their education and pass the board exams to become competent respiratory therapists.
In fact, we’ve asked more than 50,000 students this one simple question:
“What is your biggest struggle in respiratory therapy school?”
The responses we received were enlightening and revealed a set of common challenges faced by aspiring respiratory therapists.
These shared struggles point to areas that require extra attention and support.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the most frequently mentioned challenges and provide valuable insights and strategies to help students tackle these obstacles head-on.
Top Challenges Faced by Respiratory Therapy Students
- Mechanical Ventilation
- Pulmonary Function Testing (PFT)
- Cardiopulmonary Anatomy and Physiology
- Time Management
- Exam Questions
- Patient Assessment
- Neonatal and Pediatric Care
- ABG Interpretation
- Staying Focused
- Decision Making
- Respiratory Diseases
- Clinical Rotations
- Passing the TMC Exam
- Passing the Clinical Sims Exam
1. Mechanical Ventilation
The number one topic students struggle with in respiratory therapy school by far is mechanical ventilation.
This critical process involves managing and adjusting complex machines to provide support to patients who are unable to breathe spontaneously.
The complexity of these machines, coupled with the need to make rapid, critical decisions in high-pressure environments, can make mastering mechanical ventilation a significant struggle for students.
2. Pulmonary Function Testing (PFT)
Pulmonary function testing (PFT) is another aspect of respiratory therapy education that students often find challenging.
These tests involve understanding how the lungs and respiratory system function and are typically used to diagnose and monitor lung diseases.
Students must learn to perform these tests accurately, interpret the results, and explain them to patients in understandable terms.
The sheer depth of knowledge required, along with the precision needed in testing procedures, make PFT a demanding subject for students.
3. Cardiopulmonary Anatomy and Physiology
The heart and lungs work together to pump oxygenated blood throughout the body and remove carbon dioxide from the cells.
Students must learn how these systems work individually and together, how they can fail, and how interventions can restore normal function.
The vastness of the subject and the need to apply this knowledge to real-life clinical situations make it a particularly challenging area for many respiratory therapy students.
4. Time Management
One of the most common struggles experienced by respiratory therapy students is time management.
The amount of theoretical knowledge to absorb, practical skills to hone, and professional experiences to acquire often make the academic schedule extremely rigorous and demanding.
Balancing classes, clinical rotations, study time, personal responsibilities, and self-care can be overwhelming.
Developing effective time management skills is critical for success, but achieving this balance is a significant challenge many students face.
5. Exam Questions
Respiratory therapy students often find the structure of exam questions to be particularly challenging.
Questions in this field are typically scenario-based and require students not only to recall facts but to apply theoretical knowledge to clinical situations.
Exams require in-depth comprehension of complex topics, including several of the ones mentioned in this article (i.e., mechanical ventilation).
It’s also common for questions to test students’ diagnostic abilities, asking them to interpret patient data and make appropriate treatment decisions.
The complexity and practical nature of these exam questions make it challenging for students to maintain a 4.0 GPA throughout the program.
6. Patient Assessment
Patient assessment is a crucial process that involves evaluating a patient’s respiratory status through various methods, including:
- Patient history
- Physical examination
- Interpretation of diagnostic tests
It requires a keen eye for detail, good communication skills, and the ability to interpret information to make informed clinical decisions.
Furthermore, each patient’s situation is unique, requiring students to apply their knowledge in varied and often complex ways.
7. Neonatal and Pediatric Care
Unlike adult patients, children, especially newborns, have distinct anatomical and physiological differences that require special consideration in treatment protocols.
For example, the equipment used for mechanical ventilation is different in size and parameters, and diseases often present differently in children compared to adults.
Students must understand these nuances to provide effective care, making this a significant hurdle in their education.
Additionally, the emotional aspect of working with young patients and their families adds an extra layer of complexity.
Respiratory care involves numerous machines and devices, such as mechanical ventilators and oxygen delivery systems, that can sometimes fail or encounter issues.
Respiratory therapists (and students) must quickly identify and correct problems to ensure uninterrupted patient care.
This requires a deep understanding of the device’s functionalities and a calm, analytical mindset under high-pressure situations.
The high-stakes environment, combined with the intricate knowledge required for effective troubleshooting, makes this a significant challenge for many.
9. ABG Interpretation
Arterial blood gas (ABG) interpretation is a critical skill for respiratory therapy students but can be particularly difficult to master.
ABGs provide essential data about a patient’s oxygenation, ventilation, and acid-base balance.
Students must learn to correctly interpret these results to diagnose and manage a wide range of respiratory and metabolic conditions.
This skill is not only important throught school, but it’s also crucial for passing the board exams to become licensed as a respiratory therapist.
10. Staying Focused
Staying focused throughout respiratory therapy school can definitely be a challenge.
Students must learn a ton of information, and it’s not just about reading textbooks or listening to lectures. They must also apply this knowledge during hands-on clinical practice.
It’s easy to get distracted when you’re juggling so many things.
Plus, let’s face it, we all get tired, and it’s even harder to stay focused when you’re exhausted or stressed.
So, one big challenge students often discuss is finding ways to keep their concentration sharp, especially when there’s a lot going on.
11. Decision Making
In a clinical setting, respiratory therapists must make decisions that directly impact patient care, often in high-stress or time-sensitive situations.
This might involve choosing an appropriate treatment method, adjusting ventilator settings, or deciding on the need for further diagnostic tests.
The ability to analyze data, apply theoretical knowledge, and use clinical judgment, all while considering the ethical and practical implications, can be a significant struggle for students to overcome.
When people think about studying for a medical program like respiratory therapy, they often don’t realize that there’s math involved.
But the truth is, there are a lot of calculations that students must learn.
Everything from figuring out correct medication dosages to adjusting the pressure of oxygen tanks involves some kind of math.
This comes as a surprise for some students and can be challenging for those who don’t have a knack for numbers.
Fortunately, the math and calculations in respiratory therapy school are not complex and are actually straightforward to understand.
Once you learn the formulas, all you have to do is plug the numbers in to easily calculate the correct answers.
13. Respiratory Diseases
Cardiopulmonary pathology is another subject many students struggle with, which involves learning and understanding various respiratory diseases.
I mean, there are several conditions that affect the heart and lungs, each with its own causes, symptoms, and treatment methods.
Students must understand all these disorders well enough to recognize the symptoms and determine the best treatment for a given patient.
So yeah, this subject is challenging for many students, and for good reason.
14. Clinical Rotations
Now, let’s talk about clinical rotations. This part of the respiratory therapy program is where students get their hands dirty — literally.
It’s all about real-life experience in different healthcare settings, such as the ICU or emergency department.
This process is essential for developing the knowledge and skills required to become a respiratory therapist. However, it’s often easier said than done.
Going from sitting in a classroom to working with actual patients is a big jump
Therefore, students must learn to balance the theoretical knowledge they’ve studied with the practical experience of working in a real-life setting.
15. Passing the TMC Exam
The Therapist Multiple-Choice (TMC) Exam is one of those big, important tests that everyone must pass to become a respiratory therapist.
And it just so happens to be one of the final hurdles students must overcome.
It’s a wide-ranging exam that covers the core fundamental concepts of respiratory care.
This includes many of the difficult subjects that we’ve discussed, such as patient assessment and mechanical ventilation.
Let’s be honest; the exam is definitely not easy.
Get instant access to 3+ premium courses to pass the TMC Exam. - TMC Test Bank, TMC Exam Hacks, and Daily Practice Questions. Bundle and Save!
16. Passing the Clinical Sims Exam
Then there’s the Clinical Simulation Exam (CSE), which is the final step required for a student to become credentialed as a registered respiratory therapist (RRT).
This exam is all about applying what you’ve learned to real-world scenarios.
It involves actual patient cases where students have to make decisions based on what’s happening in the moment.
And here’s the kicker — each scenario can go in different directions depending on your decisions.
Talk about stressful, right?
This format, coupled with the vast amount of knowledge required, explains why the CSE is known as one of the most difficult board exams in the medical field.
However, again, with hard work and the right preparation materials, students can equip themselves to earn a passing score and become fully credentialed as an RRT.
So there you have it — becoming a respiratory therapist isn’t a walk in the park.
There’s a lot to learn, from different diseases to hands-on skills, and you’ll have to navigate some pretty tough exams along the way.
Not to mention the unexpected math part!
But hey, all these challenges are just stepping stones on the path to becoming a competent and successful respiratory therapist.
And remember, the end goal is pretty awesome because you get to help people and make a real difference in their lives.
So keep pushing, keep learning, and know that every bit of the struggle is preparing you for an incredibly rewarding career. You’ve got this!
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.