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What is a Respiratory Therapist?

Also known as: Licensed Registered Respiratory Therapist, Respiratory Care Practitioner, Certified Respiratory Therapist, Registered Respiratory Therapist.

A respiratory therapist is someone who cares for patients that 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.

What does a Respiratory Therapist do?

Patients receiving care from a respiratory therapist range in age from the premature infant to the eldest of the elderly. A respiratory therapist typically does the following:

  • Interviews and examines patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders
  • Consults with physicians to develop patient treatment plans
  • Performs diagnostic tests such as measuring lung capacity
  • Treats patients, using a variety of methods, including chest physiotherapy and aerosol medications
  • Monitors and records the progress of treatment
  • Supervises respiratory therapy technicians during tests and evaluates the findings of the tests
  • Teaches 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 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 can I become 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.

  • Respiratory Therapist - Canadian Education Programs

    Respiratory therapists in Canada graduate from three-year training programs offered by community colleges and institutes of technology. Some universities also offer four-year respiratory therapy degrees.

  • Respiratory Therapist: Career Information

    A respiratory therapist (RT) treats people who have breathing or cardiopulmonary problems. Among their patients are premature infants whose lungs are underdeveloped and children and adults who have lung diseases such as cystic fibrosis, asthma and COPD.

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    Further Reading

    • Respiratory Therapist Career Options And Outlook

      Respiratory therapists are trained medical professionals who work with the respiratory and cardiopulmonary systems of the body. Although they are not qualified to operate with the same kind of authority as physicians, they do evaluate and treat patients with a fairly high level of autonomy.

    • A Day In The Life Of A Respiratory Therapist

      Exciting, difficult, joyful, sad, fulfilling, a calling – these are just a few words used to describe the emotions one can feel during a typical day as a registered respiratory therapist. The opportunity to change lives every day is almost limitless.

    • A Day In The Life Of A Respiratory Therapist

      Throughout our lives, how often we breathe and how much we breathe is often taken for granted. For some children, however, this simple function is not so effortless.

    • Respiratory Therapist Salary

      Respiratory therapist's salary is very competitive compared to various other health care therapists.

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