Job description: Respiratory therapists work with physicians and other healthcare staff to develop and modify plans for patient care. They care for patients on life support in hospitals and provide other complex therapy requiring independent judgment. They care for patients of all ages – from premature infants to senior citizens – and they provide emergency treatment to those who have had a shock, heart attack, stroke or drowning. Respiratory therapists also care for patients with chronic emphysema or asthma by administering breathing treatments.
After interviewing patients and performing limited examinations, respiratory therapists perform diagnostic tests on the patient. They measure the volume and flow of oxygen when the patient inhales and exhales, and draw an arterial blood sample to analyze blood pH, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. The respiratory therapist then reports the results to the physician, who makes a decision on treatment for the patient.
If a patient needs oxygen, respiratory therapists place a nasal cannula or oxygen mask on the patient to improve oxygen intake, and they connect patients who are not able to breathe independently to ventilators that bring pressurized oxygen into the lungs. They perform frequent assessments of equipment to ensure that it is working properly, and they make any necessary adjustments according to the physician’s orders. Sometimes respiratory therapists help remove mucus from a patient’s lungs by performing chest physiotherapy.
Respiratory Therapists Job Summary
Although most respiratory therapists work in hospitals, more openings are becoming available in other types of facilities.
A bachelor’s or master’s degree may help a respiratory therapist in job advancement, but an associate’s degree is the minimum education for this job.
Respiratory therapists are required to be licensed in all states except Hawaii and Alaska.
Work Environment for Respiratory Therapists
The majority of respiratory therapists work in hospital environments. They typically work 35 to 40 hours per week, but may be required to work evenings, nights, weekends and holidays. They often spend a great deal of time walking between patients’ rooms standing. The job can be very stressful, especially in emergency situations. Frequent travel to patients’ homes is required by respiratory therapists who work in home healthcare.
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Because respiratory therapists work with gases that are stored under pressure, they must adhere to safety precautions and regularly test and perform maintenance on equipment to reduce potential injury. Therapists are sometimes exposed to infectious diseases, as are all healthcare workers; but by using proper procedures, they can minimize risks.
How to Become a Respiratory Therapist
Respiratory therapists are required to have an associate's degree in a medical specialty; however, many find a bachelor's or master's degree necessary for advancement. Training in this field is available from a college or university, vocational-technical institute, medical school or in the Armed Forces. Most programs prepare students for advanced respiratory therapy positions with associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.
Programs in respiratory therapy include courses in human anatomy, physiology, chemistry, microbiology, physics, pathophysiology, mathematics and pharmacology. Future therapists are also trained in the application of clinical practice guidelines, therapeutic and diagnostic procedures and tests, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, patient assessment, patient care outside of hospitals, medical recordkeeping and reimbursement, cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation, respiratory health promotion and disease prevention.
High school students aspiring to become respiratory therapists will find it beneficial to take courses in chemistry, physics, health, biology and mathematics. This is because an important part of the therapist’s job is computing dosages of medication and calculating gas concentrations.
Licensure is required in all states except for Hawaii and Alaska. The National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) offers the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) credential to graduates from accredited programs who pass an exam. For CRTs who graduate from advanced programs and pass two examinations, the NBRC awards the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) designation.
Respiratory therapists must be able to work as part of a team, pay close attention to detail and follow directions. They also need to have computer proficiency to operate advanced equipment. Caring for a patient’s physical and psychological needs is also necessary.
Respiratory Therapists Salary and Earnings
According to research published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), respiratory therapists held about 119,410 jobs in May 2014. The majority of therapists worked for general medical and surgical hospitals. A smaller percentage worked for specialty hospitals, nursing care facilities, employment services and health practitioners’ offices.
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The BLS predicts employment to grow much faster than the average compared to other occupations, increasing 19% from 2012 to 2022, and expects that job opportunities should be very good for respiratory therapists. The growing numbers of middle-aged and elderly patients who develop cardiopulmonary disease will spur an increasing demand for these jobs. More jobs will also result from the early detection of pulmonary disorders and the increasing role of respiratory therapists in emergency care, case management and disease prevention.
How much do respiratory therapists make? As of May 2014, the BLS reports that the median annual salary for respiratory therapists was $58,490. The middle 50% of these professionals get paid between $47,920 and $67,950, while the lowest 10% had an annual income of $41,380 or less. The highest 10% earned upwards of $78,230 per year.