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Respiratory Therapist Career Overview

Oct 28, 2022
Amanda Lundberg, RN, BSN

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 

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 Respiratory Therapists

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 Respiratory Therapists Encounter

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.

Education Requirements & Helpful Certifications

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. 

How to 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 apply 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
  5. Optional: Pass the Clinical Simulation Exam
  6. Start applying for jobs!

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. 

Average Salary For Respiratory Therapists

The national median salary for a respiratory therapist is $61,830 per year, which breaks down to $29.73 per hour. RTs are paid more in states with higher costs of living. California and New York are the highest-paying states for RTs, offering an average yearly salary of $85,620 and $80,400, respectively. The lowest-paying states are Kentucky and Alabama, both around $50,000 per year. The Bureau of labor statistics estimates about 10,000 RT jobs will need to be filled yearly.

It's important to note that a respiratory therapist has much room for career growth by earning more certifications. These typically reflect a higher wage rate.  

The Pros of Being a Respiratory Therapist

  • Countless options outside of a hospital to work 
  • A relatively high wage for an associate’s degree 
  • The ability to work 12-hour shifts (could be a con to some!)
  • Potential to increase wages by earning more certifications
  • Every day could be something new and exciting 

The Cons of Being a Respiratory Therapist

  • You will always need to work under the supervision of a doctor
  • You may need to start out in undesirable shifts, such as night shifts in a hospital
  • The average pay rate is less than a nurse, although the minimum school requirements are the same

Specialty Organizations & Communities

Ideal Personality Traits

Respiratory therapy isn’t for everyone. For starters, you need to be comfortable in a healthcare setting. Yes, sometimes that includes blood and needles. Sometimes this is a deal-breaker for some. For others, it is a rush of adrenaline. Other traits that are essential for RTs include:

  • Detail-oriented
  • Compassionate
  • Ability to take directions
  • Quick problem solver
  • Ability to handle the stress of emergencies
  • Excellent communication skills
  • A passion for continuous learning and skill development

Final Thoughts

There's never been a better time to become a Respiratory Therapist. This specialized career is an essential member of a healthcare team. With a relatively short training program, you can be earning a competitive wage in as little as two years. Respiratory Therapists are considered experts in the hospital setting, but are also highly sought after in unexpected places of employment. Whether you are looking for a high-adrenaline job, or to become an esteemed healthcare specialist, Respiratory Therapy may be the perfect fit.  

In fact, Trusted will soon be adding allied health jobs. Yes, you can be a travel RT! With high-paying, versatile jobs supported by the reputable team at Trusted, this expansion allows RTs to find flexible opportunities throughout the U.S. The best part? You already know Trusted has done the heavy lifting in finding exceptional opportunities.