What is a Respiratory Therapist?

Respiratory therapists care for patients who have trouble breathing; for example, from a chronic respiratory disease, such as asthma or emphysema. They also provide emergency care to patients suffering from heart attacks, stroke, drowning, or shock. Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals. Others may work in nursing care facilities or travel to patients’ homes.

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What does a Respiratory Therapist do?

Respiratory therapists typically do the following:

  • Interview and examine patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders
  • Consult with physicians to develop patient treatment plans
  • Perform diagnostic tests such as measuring lung capacity
  • Treat patients, using a variety of methods, including chest physiotherapy and aerosol medications
  • Monitor and record the progress of treatment
  • Supervise respiratory therapy technicians during tests and evaluate the findings of the tests
  • Teach patients how to use treatments.

Respiratory therapists use various tests to evaluate patients. For example, they test lung capacity by having patients breathe into an instrument that measures the volume and flow of oxygen when they inhale and exhale. They may also take blood samples and use a blood gas analyzer to test the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels present.

Respiratory therapists perform chest physiotherapy on patients to remove mucus from their lungs and make it easier for them to breathe. Removing mucus is necessary for patients suffering from lung diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, and involves the therapist vibrating the patient’s rib cage, often by tapping the patient’s chest and encouraging him or her to cough. Respiratory therapists may connect patients who cannot breathe on their own to ventilators to deliver oxygen to the lungs. They insert a tube into the patient’s windpipe (trachea) and connect the tube to ventilator equipment. They set and monitor the equipment to ensure that the patient is receiving the correct amount of oxygen at the correct rate.

Respiratory therapists who work in home care teach patients and their families to use ventilators and other life-support systems in their homes. During these visits, they may inspect and clean equipment, check the home for environmental hazards, and ensure that patients know how to use their medications. Therapists also make emergency home visits when necessary.

In some hospitals, respiratory therapists are involved in related areas, such as counselling people on how to stop smoking and diagnosing breathing problems for people with sleep apnea.

What does it take to be a Respiratory Therapist?

Respiratory therapists need at least an associate’s degree, but employers look favorably on applicants who have more education. Many colleges and universities, vocational-technical institutes, and the Armed Forces offer training. Most programs award an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. All programs have clinical components that allow therapists to earn course credit and gain supervised, practical experience treating patients. Respiratory therapy programs include courses in human anatomy and physiology, chemistry, physics, microbiology, pharmacology, and mathematics. Other courses deal with therapeutic and diagnostic procedures and tests, equipment, patient assessment, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). High school students interested in applying to respiratory therapy programs should take courses in health, biology, mathematics, chemistry, and physics.

Respiratory therapists are licensed in almost all jurisdictions, although requirements vary. Licensure requirements in most places include completing a professional certification exam.

Many employers prefer to hire respiratory therapists who have certification. Certification is not always required, but it is widely respected throughout the occupation. Certification usually requires graduating from an accredited program and passing a certification exam and is often required in order to get a license.

What is the workplace of a Respiratory Therapist like?

Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals. Others may work in nursing care facilities or travel to patients’ homes. They are on their feet for long periods and may need to lift or turn disabled patients. Like other healthcare workers, they may be exposed to infectious diseases.

Most respiratory therapists work full time. Because they may work in medical facilities such as hospitals that are always open, some work evening, night, or weekend hours.

How much does a Respiratory Therapist earn?

The median annual wage of respiratory therapists was $54,280 in May 2010. (The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less.) The lowest 10% earned less than $39,990, and the top 10% earned more than $73,410.

Learn more about being a Respiratory Therapist