Job Profile: Respiratory Therapist


Respiratory diseases are mild to severe medical conditions that affect how the trachea, bronchi, and lungs bring oxygen into the bloodstream and expel carbon dioxide waste. Common diagnoses include asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, cystic fibrosis, emphysema, influenza, pneumonia, and sleep apnea. According to the NIH, respiratory diseases have an estimated economic impact of $106 billion yearly. Lung problems are responsible for around 235,000 annual deaths too. Receiving high-quality healthcare is essential for these patients to breathe more easily. That's where respiratory therapists come in. RTs are skilled clinicians who specialize in improving patients' oxygen level and lung capacity when inhaling. Respiratory therapists have expertise in cardiopulmonary anatomy to effectively evaluate and alleviate suffering for children or adults with any breathing difficulties.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the 120,330 respiratory therapists employed across America earn a mean annual wage of $59,640, or $28.67 per hour. Respiratory therapists working in general hospitals make $59,590 on average. Those treating patients for home health agencies bring home slightly more at $60,900 yearly. The top-paid respiratory therapists in outpatient care facilities claim an average salary of $68,680.

Beginning Salary

Recent college graduates entering respiratory therapy positions will likely land in the bottom 10th percentile of earnings with annual income around $41,970. Certified Respiratory Therapists (CRTs) have higher starting salaries at $46,646 or better. As experience grows, respiratory therapists can eventually make upwards of $80,440 each year. Therapists advancing into coveted respiratory therapy director roles have a median annual salary of $99,809.

Key Responsibilities

Respiratory therapists are primarily responsible for recommending treatment methods to patients who've been diagnosed by physicians with breathing disorders. They'll review each patient's medical history, listen to their lungs, and conduct tests like arterial blood gas (ABG) analysis. Therapists will collaborate with doctors like pulmonologists to customize individual treatment plans. They often conduct chest physiotherapy to encourage coughing up excess mucus coating the breathing organs. If needed, respiratory therapists will connect patients to ventilators, endotracheal tubes, CPAP machines, and nebulizers. Another big task is teaching patients about environmental hazards aggravating their lung symptoms. Respiratory therapists may also respond to Code Blue calls in patients suffering acute respiratory failure.

Necessary Skills

Successfully treating patients in breathing distress will require in-depth clinical skills to calculate the right dosage of potentially life-saving medications. Knowledge of anatomy and physiology must be combined with good interpersonal skills though. Respiratory therapists need to act with compassion and empathy to support patients undergoing lengthy treatments. Communication skills are a must-have to efficiently collaborate with supervising physicians and support staff. RTs should be detail-oriented with the organizational skills to record each patient's progress. Having good problem-solving skills helps respiratory therapists turn symptoms into healing plans that work. Respiratory therapists should also possess strong deductive reasoning, listening, teaching, and decision-making skills.

Degree and Education Requirements

Becoming a respiratory therapist will necessitate finishing a high school diploma or GED to pursue at least an associate degree. Having a solid background in biology, chemistry, math, and physics will help when entering post-secondary training. Aspiring therapists must choose an accredited program by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (COARC). Most A.S. and A.A.S programs in respiratory therapy are sufficient, but bachelor's degrees are becoming popular. Finishing a B.S. could give more in-depth clinical skills for advancement. Going a step further to acquire a master's degree, such as a Master of Health Administration (MHA), would unlock leadership positions like respiratory therapy director.

Pros and Cons of the Position

Choosing this allied health profession would provide both advantages and challenges. On the positive side, respiratory therapists have a sunny job outlook that will keep the searching and interviewing process relatively short. RTs are well-compensated with an above-average hourly wage and excellent benefits. Respiratory therapists receive a good ROI because only an associate degree is necessary for entry. Intrinsic rewards are abundant as they develop close patient relationships treating breathing issues and improving overall quality of life. However, respiratory therapists have a stressful job administering CPR in emergency situations, such as drowning accidents. RTs have a subordinate position where they may be questioned and critiqued by supervising doctors for tension. It's common for respiratory therapists in hospitals to work odd shifts with weekend and holiday hours. Upward mobility is limited because competition is strong for administrator and director jobs. Respiratory therapists also must invest in continuing education to fulfill re-certification qualifications.

Getting Started

Taking college courses in microbiology, pharmacology, and biochemistry is only one piece of the puzzle. Hopeful respiratory therapists need to develop experience in health facilities with patients suffering lung disorders. Most COARC-accredited programs will include clinical practicum and simulation labs. Some respiratory therapists are trained in the U.S. Armed Forces before working stateside in civilian facilities. After graduation, each state except Alaska requires RTs earn licensure. Most will require 60 higher education credits, clinical practice, and criminal background check. Some states mandate taking the National Board of Respiratory Care (NBRC) certification exam. With 160 multiple-choice questions, this test will provide the preferred CRT credential for a $190 fee. The Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) exam is taken three years after graduation for advancement. Therapists could also stand out with specialty certifications, such as Adult Critical Care or Neonatal/Pediatric Care.

Future Outlook

Global climate change is expected to worsen ozone levels and air pollution to increase the prevalence of respiratory diseases. Middle-aged and elderly patients are most at-risk, which means our nation's aging baby boomers are sparking demand. Hospitals often refer patients to RTs to reduce stays and readmissions. In 2015, the CDC stated that one in 10 babies was born too early, so respiratory therapists are also needed to help premature infants develop good lung health. These factors caused the BLS to project employment growth of 12 percent for respiratory therapists before 2024. Approximately 14,900 will be created primarily in hospitals, diagnostic labs, sleep centers, rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes, physician practices, and home health agencies.

Overall, respiratory therapists are knowledgeable clinicians who use evidence-based techniques to clear patients' airways for sufficient oxygenation of the blood. The U.S. News and World Report deemed respiratory therapy the #25 best healthcare job with an impressively low unemployment rate of 1.2 percent. Consider becoming a respiratory therapist if you want to positively touch patients' lives after difficult diagnoses like mesothelioma and lung cancer without attending medical school for 4+ years.


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