What is a Respiratory Therapist?

Heart disease, cancer, lower respiratory disease, traumatic injury, and strokes are reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as being the top five causes of death in the U.S. While it may not be immediately evident, respiratory therapists play an important role in stabilizing and maintaining patients afflicted with these ailments and are vital to their ongoing care and recovery. Respiratory therapists treat all things breathing related, from monitoring infants connected to ventilators in a neonatal intensive-care unit, to assisting elderly patients suffering from diseases including pneumonia and emphysema.

Becoming a Respiratory Therapist

Respiratory therapy is a branch of the allied health professions, which includes all non-nursing non-physician health care practitioners and make up about 60 percent of the health care workforce according to the Association of Schools of Allied Health Professions. Many states allow respiratory therapists to practice with either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy, although bachelor’s degree practitioners are becoming more common in the workforce. While the specifics of your training will vary from program to program, this will typically involve about two years of academic prerequisite coursework and two years of clinical training from a program accredited by the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC). These programs will yield the ability to sit for the licensing examinations to become either a Certified Respiratory Therapist or Registered Respiratory Therapist.

Day in the Life of a Respiratory Therapist

According to the AARC, respiratory therapists may experience a variety of tasks during a given day. The critical-care nature of the field may have them managing ventilators for patients who require assistance to breathe on their own, to having them responding to “Code Blue,” typically a cardiopulmonary episode or arrest, in hospitals or responding to other emergency situations. Because of the varied needs of hospitals and clinics, respiratory therapists may be employed in settings in which they are primarily diagnosing and treating breathing disorders or performing routine physical exams, to working directly with ventilators and performing more direct interventions for patients with an impaired ability to breathe on their own.

Career and Advancement

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, respiratory therapists earned an average salary of $61,810 in 2016, with salaries ranging from $43,120 – $83,030. The majority of respiratory therapists employed in the U.S. that year were employed by hospitals and specialty clinics, and consequently the highest-paid respiratory therapists were also employed by hospitals and specialty clinics in that year. BLS also suggests that the job outlook for respiratory therapists is strong, with a current 130,200 respiratory therapy jobs available in the workplace and an anticipated 160,600 jobs expected in the workplace by the year 2026.

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Respiratory therapy is a career that both stands on its own, and opens new doors for potential health care students. While respiratory therapists have the ability to advance their licensing credentials, moving from Certified Respiratory Therapists to Registered Respiratory Therapists, some practicing respiratory therapists may combine their wealth of hands-on critical-care experience in the health professions, with their rigorous academic background to pursue the admissions requirements for other health professions including applying to medical or physician assistant programs to further their career.