Respiratory Therapist Career Profile

Respiratory Therapists (RTs) evaluate, educate, treat and care for patients with cardio-pulmonary (heart and lung) disorders. While 75 percent of RTs work in acute care hospitals, RTs also practice in settings such as rehabilitation, long-term acute care and skilled nursing facilities; sleep disorder centers, physicians’ offices and wellness centers. In hospitals, respiratory therapists treat patients everywhere from the emergency room, to the pediatric and adult intensive care units, to the diagnostics labs, to the rehabilitation wing. Their patients are highly diverse, from premature babies struggling with underdeveloped lungs, to the elderly suffering with pneumonia, to an accident victim with a collapsed lung. Respiratory therapists play a prominent role in responding to Code Blue calls for patients in life-threatening distress. But they also treat patients with sleep disorders and counsel patients on smoking cessation or managing their asthma. In short, an RT’s work is highly diverse, and action packed.

Respiratory Therapists practice under a physician’s direction, but most often the physician is not present. Accordingly, respiratory therapists exercise considerable independent judgment in treating patients. They must assess the evidence presented by the patient and develop and implement care plans utilizing protocols and disease management programs. All of this requires an ability to quickly apply their knowledge of the relevant science, mathematics and technology to the particular circumstances. Critical thinking skills are paramount.

The ideal respiratory therapist candidate rises to challenges under stress but at the same time shows compassion. RTs are detailed problem solvers, excellent listeners and skilled oral communicators. Generally, they are confident and calm.

Most RTs work full time. Work schedules are driven by hospital and patient needs. Respiratory therapists are eligible for overtime and typically receive vacation, health and dental benefits.

The work environment is fast paced, compassionate and professional. While respiratory therapists are very much part of a team, it is not unusual for them to work independently. Their work load can be demanding.

What does it feel like to be a respiratory therapist?

Imagine watching the coloring of a premature baby improve in front of your eyes as his or her oxygen levels improve after treatment you administered. Consider entering a hospital room in response to a Code Blue. You see two faces, one the ashen face of a patient that’s clearly in cardio-pulmonary arrest, the other the panicked look of a wife as she is hurried from the room. Minutes later the patient is alive and breathing through an endotracheal tube because of you, your training, your calm in the face of crisis and the team of nurses and care givers around you. Respiratory therapists, perhaps as much as any health professional, save lives. There is nothing that is more fulfilling.

Respiratory Therapist is ranked No. 51 of the 100 Best Jobs by US News and World Report.

Respiratory Therapy is a fast-growing profession. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects growth in RT employment of 12 percent between 2014 and 2024. That equates to 14,900 additional jobs.

To enter the profession one must graduate from an Associate of Science in Respiratory Therapy program that has been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care. Graduates must then pass a national or state exam which in many instances will be the Certified Respiratory Therapist Exam, administered by the National Board for Respiratory Care.

What is the career path for RT’s?

As RTs enhance their clinical skills on-the-job, they might advance to treating patients in highly specialized intensive care units. Those who continue on to Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees often enter supervisory or unit manager positions. The critical thinking skills developed by RTs coupled with relationships developed over years of patient care result in opportunities for specialized administrative and management positions in health care. Many experienced RTs with advanced degrees transition into respiratory therapy education.

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Are you a practicing Respiratory Therapist with an Associate's degree, which is a pre-requisite for this program?