A respiratory therapist (RT) is a specialized healthcare professional who helps treat patients with acute and chronic cardiopulmonary conditions. They work closely with physicians and nurses to provide care for patients of all age groups, from infants to the elderly population.
In this article, we will explore what a respiratory therapist is, what they do on the job, and what educational requirements are needed to enter the field of respiratory care.
Respiratory Therapist Job Description
Respiratory therapists use a variety of treatment modalities to help their patients breathe better and improve their quality of life.
The job duties of a respiratory therapist may vary depending on their work environment. However, there are some common tasks that respiratory therapists typically perform, including:
- 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
Respiratory therapists are vital members of the healthcare team and work closely with doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals.
Where Do Respiratory Therapists Work?
Respiratory therapists have the opportunity to work in a variety of settings, including:
- Nursing homes
- Rehabilitation centers
- Sleep labs
- Home health
The job duties of each respiratory therapist will vary depending on the setting in which they work.
Hospitals are by far the most common workplace for respiratory therapists. In addition, there are several different departments within the hospital where a respiratory therapist may work, including:
- Inpatient (medical-surgical)
- Emergency room (ER)
- Intensive care unit (ICU)
- Operating room (OR)
- Neonatal ICU (NICU)
- Labor and delivery
- Pulmonary rehabilitation
Again, the job duties of a respiratory therapist can vary widely depending on which part of the hospital they work in.
For example, an RT who works in the ICU will be required to manage critically ill patients who are receiving life support from a mechanical ventilator.
On the other hand, an RT working in the ER must be able to think quickly on their feet and provide care for patients who are experiencing a medical emergency, such as cardiac arrest or an acute asthma attack.
In general, respiratory therapists who work in nursing homes provide care for a population of elderly patients with chronic cardiopulmonary conditions, such as COPD or emphysema.
Rehabilitation centers are another common workplace for respiratory therapists. In this setting, RTs work with patients who are recovering from an acute illness or injury and need help regaining their strength and mobility.
Pulmonary rehab is a type of rehabilitation program specifically designed for patients with lung disease. These programs can help patients improve their quality of life and make breathing easier.
Respiratory therapists who work in sleep labs provide care for patients with sleep-related breathing disorders, such as sleep apnea. This includes performing polysomnography, which is a comprehensive sleep study used for the assessment and diagnosis of sleep disorders.
However, this position typically requires that the RT earn the Sleep Disorders Specialty (SDS) credential that is offered by the NBRC.
Home health is a rapidly growing field for respiratory therapists. In this setting, RTs are required to make home visits to patients with chronic lung diseases.
During these visits, the RT will assess the patient’s condition and make recommendations for treatment. They may also help set up the patient’s oxygen delivery equipment or other medical devices.
Conditions Respiratory Therapists Help Treat
Respiratory therapists generally provide care for patients with conditions of the heart and lungs. Some of the most common 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 how these conditions affect the body and how they can be treated.
Skills for Being a Respiratory Therapist
Similar to other jobs in the medical field, there are certain unique skills that respiratory therapists need to be successful. Some examples include:
- Analytical thinking
- Critical thinking
- Physical strength and endurance
- Fine and gross motor ability
- Hearing, smell, and vision
- Reading comprehension
- Emotional stability
Respiratory therapy can be a challenging (but fulfilling) career. Be sure to read our full guide on why these respiratory therapist skills are important for those who want a career in this field.
How to Become a Respiratory Therapist
To become a respiratory therapist, you will need to graduate from an accredited respiratory therapy program. These programs typically take two years to complete and provide the student with an associate degree.
This makes the candidate eligible to take the TMC exam, which is the national credentialing exam that is offered by the NBRC.
If you want to become a registered respiratory therapist (RRT), you must pass the exam with a high-cut score. This makes you eligible to take the Clinical Sims Exam (CSE), which is a separate board exam that, if passed, will award you the RRT credential.
How Much Do Respiratory Therapists Make?
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 is the Difference Between a Certified and Registered Respiratory Therapist?
A certified respiratory therapist (CRT) is an RT who has completed an accredited respiratory therapy program and has passed the TMC exam.
A registered respiratory therapist (RRT) is an RT who has completed an accredited respiratory therapy program, has passed the TMC exam, and has also passed the CSE exam. This is a separate board exam that awards the RRT credential.
What is a Respiratory Care Practitioner?
A respiratory care practitioner (RCP) is a respiratory therapist who has completed an accredited program and has passed the board exam.
It’s simply another name for respiratory therapist, and the two terms are often used interchangeably.
What’s the Worst Thing About Being a Respiratory Therapist?
One of the worst things about being a respiratory therapist is that the job can be physically and emotionally demanding. RTs are often required to work long hours, and they regularly care for patients who are in a great deal of pain or suffering from a life-threatening illness.
However, the rewards of the job can outweigh the challenges.
RTs often get a great deal of satisfaction from helping their patients improve and even recover from their conditions. It’s a great feeling to be able to help a patient breathe easier.
Is a Respiratory Therapist a Doctor?
No, a respiratory therapist is not a doctor. However, RTs are highly trained and skilled professionals who provide critical care to patients with respiratory disorders.
A doctor is a qualified practitioner who has completed medical school and residency training. Respiratory therapists are only required to complete an associate degree. Therefore, they do not need to graduate from medical school in order to practice respiratory care.
Respiratory therapists play an important role in the medical field. They help treat patients with conditions of the heart and lungs in order to help make breathing easier.
To become a respiratory therapist, you will need to complete an accredited respiratory therapy program and pass two credentialing exams. Most programs take two years to complete, but the total time may vary depending on prerequisite courses and other factors.
Respiratory therapists need certain skills to be successful, such as communication and critical thinking. They also must have physical strength and endurance, as they may be required to lift patients or medical equipment.
If you are interested in a career in respiratory therapy, be sure to research the field thoroughly to ensure it is the right fit for you. Thanks for reading, 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.
- 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.