What is a respiratory therapist rrt vector

What is a Respiratory Therapist? (2024)

by | Updated: Jun 12, 2024

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.

This article explores 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

A respiratory therapist is responsible for assessing, diagnosing, and treating patients with cardiopulmonary disorders. They often provide care to patients in the hospital setting but may also work in clinics, nursing homes, or other outpatient facilities.

Respiratory therapists use a variety of treatment modalities to help their patients breathe better and improve their quality of life.

Job Duties

The job duties of a respiratory therapist may vary depending on their work environment. However, some common tasks that respiratory therapists typically perform include:

Note: Respiratory therapists are vital members of the healthcare team and work closely with doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals.

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Where Do Respiratory Therapists Work?

Respiratory therapists often work in a variety of settings, including:

  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Sleep labs
  • Home health


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.

This includes:

  • Inpatient (medical-surgical)
  • Emergency room (ER)
  • Intensive care unit (ICU)
  • Operating room (OR)
  • Neonatal ICU (NICU)
  • Labor and delivery
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation

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.

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Nursing Homes

Respiratory therapists who work in nursing homes typically provide care for a population of elderly patients with chronic cardiopulmonary conditions, such as COPD or emphysema.

Rehabilitation Centers

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 rehabilitation is a program specifically designed for patients with lung diseases to help improve their quality of life and make breathing easier.

Sleep Labs

Respiratory therapists who work in sleep labs provide care for patients with sleep-related breathing disorders, such as sleep apnea.

This includes performing polysomnography, a comprehensive sleep study used for the assessment and diagnosis of sleep disorders.

Note: This position typically requires that the RT earn the Sleep Disorders Specialty (SDS) credential, which is an additional certification offered by the NBRC.

Home Health

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 examples include:

Note: Respiratory therapists must have a thorough understanding of how these disorders affect the body and how they must be treated to improve patient outcomes.

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:

  • Communication
  • Analytical thinking
  • Critical thinking
  • Physical strength and endurance
  • Fine and gross motor ability
  • Hearing, smell, and vision
  • Reading comprehension
  • Emotional stability
  • Empathy
  • Compassion

Note: These skills help respiratory therapists effectively manage patient care and improve health outcomes.

Respiratory therapist treating patients on the ventilator vector illustration

FAQs About Respiratory Therapists

What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

A respiratory therapist (RT) assesses, diagnoses, and treats patients with cardiopulmonary disorders. They provide care in various settings, including hospitals, clinics, and home health environments.

RTs administer treatments like oxygen therapy, aerosol medications, and mechanical ventilation.

They perform diagnostic tests such as arterial blood gas (ABG) analysis and pulmonary function tests (PFTs) and are involved in emergency care, patient education, and pulmonary rehabilitation.

What are the Steps to Become a Respiratory Therapist?

To become a respiratory therapist, you must complete an accredited respiratory therapy program, which typically lasts about two years and results in an associate degree.

Graduating from this program qualifies you to take the Therapist Multiple-Choice (TMC) exam, the national credentialing exam administered by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC).

To achieve the registered respiratory therapist (RRT) credential, you must pass the TMC exam with a high-cut score, which then allows you to take the Clinical Simulation Exam (CSE). Passing the CSE earns you the RRT designation.

How Much Do Respiratory Therapists Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for respiratory therapists is approximately $70,000.

However, this figure can vary based on experience, education, and geographic location.

Related: Respiratory Therapy Salary (Listed by State)

How Long Does it Take to Become a Respiratory Therapist?

The journey to becoming a respiratory therapist typically takes about three to four years. The core respiratory therapy program usually spans two years, but prerequisite courses required before entering the program can add an additional year or two.

After completing the program, candidates must prepare for and pass the credentialing exams, which can also require extra time for studying.

Note: Fortunately, our premium materials can streamline this preparation process for students.

What is the Difference Between a Certified and Registered Respiratory Therapist?

A certified respiratory therapist (CRT) is someone who has completed an accredited respiratory therapy program and passed the Therapist Multiple-Choice (TMC) exam.

A registered respiratory therapist (RRT) goes a step further. In addition to completing an accredited program and passing the TMC exam, they have also passed the Clinical Simulation Exam (CSE), a separate board exam that awards the RRT credential.

Related: Registered vs. Certified Respiratory Therapist (RRT vs. CRT)

What is a Respiratory Care Practitioner?

A respiratory care practitioner (RCP) is simply another term for a respiratory therapist. This professional has completed an accredited program and passed the necessary board exams.

The terms “respiratory care practitioner” and “respiratory therapist” are often used interchangeably.

Is Respiratory Therapy Harder Than Nursing?

The difficulty of respiratory therapy compared to nursing depends on individual perspectives and aptitudes. Both fields require rigorous education and training.

Nursing programs often cover a broader range of medical topics, while respiratory therapy focuses intensely on cardiopulmonary care.

Each profession has unique challenges and demands, including critical thinking, patient care, and hands-on technical skills. Ultimately, the perceived difficulty can vary based on personal strengths and interests.

Why Would Someone See a Respiratory Therapist?

Someone might see a respiratory therapist for various reasons, including difficulty breathing, chronic lung conditions, or recovering from surgery.

RTs help manage conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis, and pneumonia.

They provide treatments to improve lung function, administer life-support measures, and offer education on managing respiratory diseases and smoking cessation.

Do Respiratory Therapists Draw Blood?

Yes, respiratory therapists often draw blood, particularly for arterial blood gas (ABG) analysis. ABG tests measure the levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and the pH of the blood, providing crucial information about a patient’s respiratory and metabolic status.

This skill is an essential part of a respiratory therapist’s role in diagnosing and monitoring cardiopulmonary conditions.

What is the Worst Thing About Being a Respiratory Therapist?

One of the most challenging aspects of being a respiratory therapist is the physical and emotional demands of the job.

RTs often work long hours and care for patients who are in significant pain or suffering from life-threatening illnesses.

Despite these challenges, many RTs find the job highly rewarding. Helping patients breathe easier and improve their health provides immense satisfaction and fulfillment.

Related: The Pros and Cons of Being a Respiratory Therapist

Do Respiratory Therapists Intubate?

Yes, respiratory therapists (RTs) are trained to intubate patients. Intubation involves inserting a tube into the patient’s airway to maintain an open airway, deliver oxygen, and facilitate mechanical ventilation.

This procedure is critical in emergency situations, during surgery, and for patients requiring prolonged ventilatory support. RTs often assist with or perform intubation in collaboration with physicians and other healthcare professionals.

What is the Scope of Practice for a Respiratory Therapist?

The scope of practice for a respiratory therapist encompasses a wide range of responsibilities focused on assessing, diagnosing, and treating patients with cardiopulmonary disorders.

This includes:

  • Administering oxygen therapy and aerosol medications
  • Performing mechanical ventilation management
  • Conducting diagnostic tests such as arterial blood gases (ABGs) and pulmonary function tests (PFTs)
  • Providing airway clearance and chest physical therapy
  • Assisting with intubation and bronchoscopy procedures
  • Developing and implementing treatment plans
  • Educating patients on respiratory health, including smoking cessation
  • Participating in pulmonary rehabilitation programs

Note: RTs collaborate closely with physicians, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to provide comprehensive care for patients with respiratory conditions.

Is a Respiratory Therapist a Doctor?

No, a respiratory therapist is not a doctor. While respiratory therapists are highly trained and skilled professionals who provide critical care to patients with respiratory disorders, they do not attend medical school.

Instead, they complete an associate degree program in respiratory therapy. In contrast, doctors complete medical school and residency training before practicing medicine.

Respiratory therapist doctor and patient vector illustration

Final Thoughts

Respiratory therapists play a crucial role in healthcare, providing essential care to patients with heart and lung conditions to improve their breathing and overall well-being.

To pursue a career as a respiratory therapist, you need to complete an accredited respiratory therapy program and pass two credentialing exams. Most programs take around two years, though this can vary based on prerequisite courses and other factors.

Success in this field requires strong communication and critical thinking skills, as well as physical strength and endurance to handle tasks like lifting patients or medical equipment.

If you’re considering a career in respiratory therapy, take the time to thoroughly research the field to ensure it aligns with your interests and goals.

John Landry, BS, RRT

Written by:

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.
  • “The National Board for Respiratory Care.” The National Board for Respiratory Care; nbrc.org; 2020.
  • “Respiratory Therapists : Occupational Outlook Handbook.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; 2022.

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