Respiratory Therapist (RT) Career Guide

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Respiratory Therapist (RT)

What Is a Respiratory Therapist?

A Respiratory Therapist (RT) is a specialized medical professional who monitors and treats respiratory and cardiopulmonary disorders. RTs work under the supervision of a doctor to assist with examining, diagnosing, monitoring, and treating anyone with lung issues. Typically, RTs are trained in critical care for acute emergent situations. RTs work with everyone from neonatal babies with underdeveloped lungs, to geriatric patients with chronic lung diseases.

What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

Keep the patient breathing: this is the ultimate goal of an RT. Although this is a basic explanation, it’s actually much more complex than that. The focus is on keeping airways open, oxygen flowing, and gas exchange successful.

An RT is responsible for monitoring and treating patients with acute or chronic respiratory conditions. They work closely with doctors and nurses as part of a collaborative care team to accomplish this goal.

Most RTs work in a hospital setting and their typical duties include acute patients who are having trouble breathing or have stopped breathing. Alternatively, in less acute settings such as nursing homes and home health, RTs will more commonly manage chronic lung conditions and perform ongoing evaluations and treatments. In general, RTs have the following responsibilities:

  • Perform examinations to evaluate the patient’s breathing capabilities
  • Communicate with doctors and care teams to develop treatment plans
  • Perform diverse breathing treatments, while independently monitoring results
  • Perform diagnostic tests to determine blood gas levels
  • Educate patients and families on breathing techniques, equipment, and medications
  • Connect and monitor patients using a ventilator
  • Document detailed reports of patient status

How Do You Become a Respiratory Therapist?

Depending on the number of prerequisite classes required for a particular program, you can become an RT in about 2 to 4 years. An associate's degree program will be 2 years, but there are also bachelor's degree programs that would take 4 years to complete.

So you've decided you want to become an RT…now what? Here is a list of the steps to starting out in this highly coveted career:

  1. Find an accredited program and apply
  2. Complete all prerequisite classes with acceptable grades
  3. Complete and successfully pass the RT program (If you live in Alaska, you can now interview for jobs and start working as an RT. For all other states, you will need to complete step 4.)
  4. Pass the Therapist Multiple-Choice (TMC) Exam and become licenced in the state in which you'd like to work! (Hint: Check out our state-by-state Licensure Guide!)
  5. Optional: Pass the Clinical Simulation Exam‍
  6. Start applying for jobs!

FAQs About Respiratory Therapists

What skills does a Respiratory Therapist need?

Apart from the technical skills of assessing, monitoring, diagnosing, and treating respiratory problems taught in RT school, RTs are expected to have the following additional skills to become a successful member of the care team.

Compassion for others. Being a healthcare provider, RTs need to genuinely want to help others.

Excellent communication skills. RTs will need to discuss exams and treatment goals with doctors, nurses, patients, and their families. They will also need to document clearly and concisely.

Understand anatomy and physiology. RTs are experts on the respiratory system. They need to proficiently comprehend how and why the respiratory system works.

Swift problem solver. In acute situations, the RT needs to be able to stay calm and perform all actions precisely and with expertise as conditions may change rapidly.

Team-oriented. An RT rarely works alone. They will need to be comfortable collaborating alongside many other disciplines focusing on the same goals.

Work Settings For a Respiratory Therapist

According to the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science, 75% of Respiratory Therapists are employed in hospitals. However, with the expanding aging population, RTs are being hired at an increasing rate in nursing homes, cardiopulmonary labs and rehab centers, and home health agencies.

Even though most RTs work in a traditional hospital setting, there's also growth for RTs in more obscure enterprises. RTs can work for a professional sports team, enhancing the players’ use of oxygen, or even at a swanky “oxygen bar,” offering supplemental oxygen to customers.

Common Cases a Respiratory Therapist Encounters

RTs may encounter a diverse range of respiratory symptoms even in one work shift. Depending on the location or department the RT may work, they may encounter acute problems, chronic diseases, or a combination of both. If it involves breathing and airways, an RT most likely will be involved. In general, RTs may encounter the following:

  • Acute breathing problems such as cardiac arrest, drowning, asthma, blockages, anaphylaxis reaction, drug, and alcohol overdose.
  • Chronic respiratory issues such as COPD, emphysema, chronic asthma, obstructive disorders, lung infections, and cancers.

How To Advance Your Career as a Respiratory Therapist?

At the entry-level, a certified RT (CRT) has lots of room for career growth, beginning with passing the Clinical Simulation Exam (CSE) to become a Registered RT (RRT). An alternative route is to become a Certified Pulmonary Function Technologist (CPFT). This requires another technical exam and based on your score, you either receive a certification or if you achieve a higher score, you earn the title of Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist (RPFT), a highly experienced certification.

In addition, there are two certifications you can obtain based on your experience and interests. One is a Neonatal/Pediatric Respiratory Care Specialist who focuses on babies and young children. Another option is a Sleep Disorder Specialist, focusing on sleep apneas and sleep-related respiratory disorders.

Education Requirements & Helpful Certifications for a Respiratory Therapist

Becoming an RT first requires completing an accredited associate’s or bachelor's degree program that is heavy on science and math, including all the prerequisite classes. If you live in Alaska, you can now go find work. However, if you live in one of the other 49 states, you need to complete and pass a multiple-choice exam to become licensed as a Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT). This is the entry-level certification required by all 49 states except Alaska.

To further your certification, you will need to pass a challenging clinical simulation exam to be titled a Registered Respiratory Therapist, which is hailed as the clinical standard of excellence.

In addition to becoming nationally licensed as a certified or registered RT, you will need to complete 30 hours of continuing education credits every 5 years to keep your knowledge and skills up to date.

Specialty Organizations & Communities for a Respiratory Therapist

Information coming soon

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