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Respiratory Therapist Career Analysis

RT with patient
Lisa Young/

If you are looking for a job which combines a thorough understanding of human anatomy and disease management, along with the use of the latest technology, you may want to consider a career as a respiratory therapist.

Why are Respiratory Therapists in Demand?

Respiratory therapists are in demand for a variety of reasons. For example, advances in medicine have increased the chances of survival for babies born prematurely. The potential viability of premature babies has provided a need for RT”s to work in neonatal intensive care units, providing therapy to the youngest patients.

In addition, the number of people with pulmonary disease continues to climb. For instance, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) has grown to become the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.

COPD is not the only prevalent pulmonary disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asthma rates have increased by 28% from 2001 to 2011. As incidences of lung disease rise, it creates a need for respiratory therapists who play a part in treating such conditions.

Responsibilities of a Respiratory Therapist

Respiratory therapists play a role in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of lung problems. For example, they may perform pulmonary function tests to identify different types of lung disorders. They also perform vital capacities and peak flows, which are additional diagnostic tests.

RT’S also provide treatment, including administering medication to treat conditions such as pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, and asthma. Respiratory therapists operate and monitor ventilators and non-invasive positive pressure machines. Therapists respond to codes and other life-threatening emergencies in order to manage the patient’s airway.

Patient education is also part of the job responsibilities of an RT. Therapists provide COPD and asthma education, along with classes on smoking cessation. Some therapists teach pulmonary rehabilitating classes or perform sleep studies to diagnosis various sleep disorders.

Educational Requirements to Become an Respiratory Therapist

All states in the Unites States except Alaska require respiratory therapists to be licensed. Specific requirements for licensure may vary. In most cases, a minimum of an associate degree from an accredited respiratory program is required. Four-year bachelor degree programs are also available. Although therapists with an associate degree are still hired, a four-year degree is becoming the standard educational path.

Respiratory therapy students can expect to take classes in anatomy, physics, pharmacology, ventilator management, and cardiopulmonary diseases. Students also complete clinical rotations at hospitals affiliated with their school.

After graduation, an entry level exam administered through the National Board of Respiratory Care is required to obtain a license to practice. An advanced credential is also offered through the NBRC. After passing an additional exam and clinical simulations, therapists are awarded the registered respiratory therapist credential.

Opportunities and Salary

Most respiratory therapists are employed by hospitals. Therapists work in all patient care areas, including the emergency room, intensive care units, and pediatrics. In addition to acute care hospitals, respiratory therapists are hired by sub-acute facilities, home health agencies, and durable medical equipment companies. Some therapists also find jobs in sleep labs, pulmonary rehab programs, and academia.

Salaries for respiratory therapists will vary based on the years of experience, credentials, degree, and geographical location. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for respiratory therapists in 2012 was just over $55,000 a year.


The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Employment Statistics.   Accessed December 2014.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Asthma Facts.  Accessed December 2014.

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About MaryAnn DePietro

MaryAnn DePietro has been a health and medical writer for over a decade. Her work has appeared in newspapers, magazines and health websites. MaryAnn holds a degree in rehabilitation and also in respiratory therapy. In addition to writing, she works as a respiratory therapist at a trauma center in northern California.