How to Become a Respiratory Therapist

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People suffering from chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma and emphysema turn to trained respiratory therapists for help. Before respiratory therapists work in hospitals, nursing care facilities, and physician offices, they begin their careers by earning either an associate degree or a bachelor's degree. After graduation, respiratory therapists further their career prospects by obtaining state licensure or certifications.

Respiratory therapists primarily work in state, local, and private hospitals, where they examine patients and teach them how to use breathing equipment. The job also requires collaboration with physicians. Respiratory therapists work with patients of all ages, from infants to the elderly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment in respiratory therapy to increase 21% between 2018 and 2028.

Keep reading to learn how to become a respiratory therapist. The following guide also includes information about educational requirements, specialties, and compensation.

What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

Career Basics

According to the BLS, about 81% of respiratory therapists work in state, local, and private hospitals. Job duties for respiratory therapists vary. Generally, they formulate treatment plans with nurses, doctors, and surgeons. Respiratory therapists also work in nursing care facilities and physician offices.

Additionally, respiratory therapists help patients of varying ages to conduct tests that measure lung capacity. Their responsibilities include inserting tracheas, performing blood tests, and teaching patients how to use ventilators and bronchodilators.

Career In-Depth

Respiratory therapists work full time, often spending long hours on their feet. They often work weekend or night shifts. Most respiratory therapists work 35-40 hours per week. The schedule for respiratory therapists usually consists of three 12-hour shifts per week.

The beginning of a respiratory therapist's shift often starts with a briefing on their patient's progress before they complete rounds to assess those on ventilators. Many respiratory therapists specialize in areas such as sleep disorders, neonatal and pediatric respiratory care, and adult critical care. Many individuals in respiratory therapy advance to product representative positions or teach college courses.

Respiratory Therapist Salary and Job Growth

In 2019, respiratory therapists made a median annual salary of $61,330, according to the BLS. As with any occupation, factors such as experience and geographical location impact earnings.

The BLS reports that respiratory therapists who work in hospitals earn a median annual salary of $61,670. Those who work in physician offices earn a median annual salary of $61,120, while respiratory therapists in nursing care facilities earn a median annual salary of $59,260.

Salaries increase as respiratory therapists gain experience, continue their education, and obtain certifications. The top 10% of respiratory therapists earned an annual salary of $86,980 as of May 2019. The lowest 10% of respiratory therapists earned $44,850 annually. The BLS projects employment in respiratory therapy to grow from 134,000 to 162,000 between 2018 and 2028.

Alabama Mean wage annual: $48,870
Currently Employed: 2,470
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 10.70%
Alaska Mean wage annual: $73,740
Currently Employed: 160
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 7.60%
Arizona Mean wage annual: $56,780
Currently Employed: 2,190
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 21.10%
Arkansas Mean wage annual: $50,460
Currently Employed: 970
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 11.10%
California Mean wage annual: $79,680
Currently Employed: 17,530
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 17.00%
Colorado Mean wage annual: $61,480
Currently Employed: 1,880
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 32.90%
Connecticut Mean wage annual: $69,940
Currently Employed: 1,250
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 2.80%
Delaware Mean wage annual: $66,520
Currently Employed: 400
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 15.60%
Florida Mean wage annual: $57,350
Currently Employed: 8,500
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 21.50%
Georgia Mean wage annual: $56,260
Currently Employed: 3,880
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 18.00%
view more

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of respiratory therapists is expected to see a 23 percent increase through 2026. That translates to roughly 30,500 new jobs in the field.

The elderly are expected to be primary drivers of the need for licensed respiratory therapists to treat age-related conditions that affect the lungs, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema. There’s also expected to be increased demand for respiratory therapists to provide care in nursing homes and long-term care facilities to help reduce incidences of readmission to hospitals from these conditions.

Advances in care treatments and medications should also create increased demand for CRTs trained in these methods. Lastly, the BLS reports that respiratory therapists willing to travel to rural areas lacking licensed CRTs may have better job prospects than their peers seeking employment in urban areas that have a higher saturation of licensed CRTs.

Four Steps to Becoming a Respiratory Therapist

The steps to becoming a respiratory therapist differ for every individual. However, all respiratory therapists take the steps listed below to secure a position. Keep reading for more details about how to become a respiratory therapist.

Step 1 Complete a Degree

College serves as the first step toward working in respiratory therapy. At minimum, prospective respiratory therapists need an associate degree in respiratory therapy. Many students earn a bachelor's degree in respiratory therapy or pulmonary science. A program's clinical experience requirements provide students with practical training and help them understand the ethical and legal responsibilities involved in respiratory care and treatment.

Step 2 Complete a Credentialing Exam from the National Board for Respiratory Care

Employers often prefer new hires to hold credentials from the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). Respiratory therapists take multiple-choice exams to become a certified respiratory therapist (CRT) or a registered respiratory therapist (RRT). After completing an associate degree, graduates take the CRT exam. If they score high enough, graduates obtain the RRT certification after completing a clinical exam. Visit the NBRC website for more information about the exams.

Step 3 Earn State Licensure

Most states require licensure for respiratory therapists to work in the field. A candidate for licensure must hold an associate degree from an accredited college in respiratory therapy. The respiratory therapy program must hold accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. In some cases work experience, licensure from another state, or military experience allows candidates to waive licensure education requirements. Prospective respiratory therapists must pass the state licensing exams or the NBRC certification exam to earn a license.

Step 4 Maintain Certification

Respiratory therapists maintain their NBRC credentials in one of three ways. First, they can opt to undergo a quarterly assessment and complete 30 continuing education hours. Acceptable continuing education units include workshops, seminars, or online courses on respiratory therapy or pulmonary function technology. Second, they can retake the same credential exam. Last, respiratory therapists can pass a new credential exam which remains valid for five years thereafter.

Preparing to Become a Respiratory Therapist: Schools and Programs

The top bachelor's in respiratory therapy degrees offer affordable, flexible, and quality programs. Prospective respiratory therapists pursue either an associate or bachelor's degree in respiratory therapy. Both suffice for employment.

Transfer students typically finish their respiratory therapy education in 1-4 years, depending on previous college credits. The University of Mary, which features one of the top online programs for registered respiratory therapists, allows transfer students to graduate in one year. The Oregon Institute of Technology's bachelor's in respiratory care degree prepares students to take the NBRC certification exam over four years. All programs involve clinical experiences.

Online bachelor's degrees in respiratory therapy care operate on a synchronous or asynchronous basis with optional hybrid formats. Self-paced classes allow students to complete degree requirements quickly. Alternatively, many students prefer to study in a cohort. Admissions policies vary with some schools offering rolling admissions and others requiring applicants to meet set deadlines.

Courses in Respiratory Therapy Programs

A respiratory therapist's education includes a broad curriculum that builds their critical thinking skills, argumentative and persuasive writing, and technical knowledge of respiratory care. Different factors impact the course load a student takes in a bachelor's in respiratory care program. Curriculum requirements differ by school. Additionally, a student's previous coursework impacts what classes they take. Undergraduates without prior college credits first take chemistry, human anatomy, and other general education units before taking the major courses.

Schooling for respiratory therapy provides students with practical skills in case management and leadership. Students also hone specific technical skills in conducting cardiopulmonary stress testing, assessing chest radiographs, and preparing artificial airways through intubation and endotracheal suctioning.

Before graduating, students complete rotations and clinical simulations to test out their skills in a clinical setting. See below for examples of courses that students often take in a respiratory therapy program.

Critical Care

A course in critical care covers the methods used in cardiovascular treatment. Students learn important practical techniques, including cardiac life support, cardiovascular management, and nasal oxygen supplementation. The coursework also teaches undergraduates how to diagnose breathing problems such as sleep apnea.

Ethics and Leadership

Respiratory therapists handle confidential patient information. The occupation requires a thorough understanding of professional ethics and privacy laws. This class teaches students how to manage crises and make ethical decisions. The practical skills students gain in the course help them advance to management positions.

Pediatric Care

Students enrolled in a pediatric care course learn about how to diagnose and treat infants, children, and adolescents. They gain skills in topics such as common diagnosis, therapeutic gases, and high-risk births. This course especially helps respiratory therapists who want to work in neonatal intensive care.

Introduction to Clinical

Over the course of their education, respiratory therapists complete clinical experiences. An introduction to clinical course places students in a clinical setting to learn from healthcare professionals. Students gain practical training and make connections in respiratory therapy. Schools require that students complete a background check and drug screening prior to starting a clinical.

Respiratory Case Management

This class covers the fundamentals of case management. Throughout the course, students strengthen their knowledge of respiratory disorders. They also study patient privacy, ethics, and legal standards.

Accreditation for a Respiratory Therapy Program

Accreditation assures quality and protects students and their investment. During the review process, third-party agencies evaluate schools and confer either regional or national accreditation. Vocational and career-focused colleges receive national accreditation. Academic schools receive regional accreditation. Many employers consider regionally accredited schools more reputable.

Accreditation matters for a student's future career, financial aid, and their ability to transfer schools. Employers typically prefer to hire graduates from accredited schools. Additionally, accredited schools receive federal financial aid and distribute those funds to students. Further, students often cannot transfer credits from nationally accredited schools as easily as credits from regionally accredited schools.

Online schools receive accreditation by the same regional accrediting agencies as brick-and- mortar colleges. Respiratory therapy degrees receive programmatic accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC), which evaluates degree outcomes and curriculum.

Visit the Department of Education's database to find accredited schools and programs.

Respiratory Therapist Specialties

Earning a respiratory therapy degree gives students an opportunity to gain skills in niche areas. In addition to the core curriculum, a respiratory therapist's education offers specialized training.

Many students earn a specialty in subjects such as pulmonary diagnostics, long-term care, or neonatal pediatrics. The specific specialties available depends on the school and the program. Much like a minor, online learners must complete additional courses to earn a specialty. Pursuing a specialty does not typically delay graduation. However, specifications for specialties vary with every program.

Specialties give students the knowledge and practical skills to become polysomnographic technologists, adult critical care specialists, or sleep disorder specialists. These courses allow students to test out their interests and solidify their career goals. The specialized skills students gain impress employers, who often seek out multitalented registered respiratory therapists.

Finding a Respiratory Therapist Program

Regional community colleges often offer Associate of Applied Science degrees in respiratory care or similar degree plans, which can significantly narrow down educational decisions. However, that degree path doesn’t necessarily work for students who want to earn bachelor’s degrees in order to diversify their career options.

Students should carefully consider the following factors prior to enrolling in a respiratory care educational program:

  • Is the program properly accredited? There are many schools that offer respiratory care programs, but students may be required to complete a program that’s been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care as a prerequisite for licensure in their home state. The National Board of Respiratory Care requires CRTs to have earned a minimum of 62 semester hours of college credit from a program that’s been accredited by an agency recognized by either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recognizes accreditation from both the CoARC and the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. Students should check with the respiratory care board in their home state prior to enrollment to fully understand the scope of educational requirements.
  • Tuition cost: College tuition is expensive. According to the College Board’s annual Trends in Higher Education survey, average tuition at public two-year colleges for the 2017-2018 academic year was $3,570, while average tuition at public four-year institutions was just under $10,000. Costs soar for private colleges to more than $34,000 per year. Students should understand the fee structure at their prospective school prior to making long-term commitments.
  • Program length: Most associate degree programs run for two years, while standard bachelor’s programs typically take four years to complete. Students may shave some time by completing accelerated degree programs, summer and winter sessions, and online classes that allow them to move ahead.
  • Delivery method: There are many different ways to complete a degree program in today’s digital world. Students can enroll in online programs, hybrid programs that split time between online and on-campus study, and traditional on-campus programs. Students should seek a program that best fits their learning style.

Students considering enrolling in respiratory therapy programs can use the search tool below to help guide their educational choices.

State
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Components of a Successful Respiratory Therapist Career: Skills, Credentials, Tools, and Technology

Respiratory therapists who succeed in the field share common traits and characteristics. Most notably, successful registered respiratory therapists learn quickly, work well under pressure, and solve problems during emergencies. The hectic schedule of a respiratory therapist demands a highly organized, team-oriented, and adaptable worker. The job also requires effective communication skills to enable collaboration between patients and other medical professionals.

Employers commonly prefer respiratory therapists who hold NBRC credentials. Many students also boost their marketability and salary potential by becoming certified sleep disorder specialists, certified pulmonary function technologists, and adult critical care specialists.

Candidates with skills in clinical technology often improve their earnings. Clinical experience during college introduces students to equipment such as respiratory function analyzers and inhalation drug delivery devices.

Respiratory Therapist Professional Organizations

Strong support networks ensure the success of a respiratory therapist. Professional organizations provide graduates with career growth opportunities. Members of professional organizations gain access to new research, continuing education courses, and events to meet other registered respiratory therapists. The following list contains five professional organizations.

  • American Association for Respiratory Care

    This nonprofit international organization, founded in 1947, serves more than 47,000 members. Members gain access to employment opportunities, courses and workshops, and software. Members also enjoy clinical resources such as aerosol delivery guides and patient safety checklists.

  • American Lung Association

    This association has promoted lung health for more than 115 years. Registered respiratory therapists participate in events organized around the country as volunteers and advocates. The organization also offers training and certification for working health professionals.

  • American Thoracic Society

    The society, founded in 1905, includes more than 16,000 healthcare professionals and researchers who work in hospitals and colleges. Members collaborate to improve patient treatment and build leadership skills. Many members also apply for research grants and attend networking events to meet with other registered respiratory therapists.

  • American Academy of Sleep Medicine

    This professional society has worked to improve sleep care since 1975. Members gain access to journals and a weekly electronic newsletter, as well as job listings. Members also receive discounts to courses and meetings.

  • Sleep Research Society

    With a 50-year tradition to advance sleep and circadian science, the SRS welcomes undergraduates and registered respiratory therapists engaged in sleep research. The society offers members professional advancement and research funding opportunities. Members also gain access to the directory and annual meetings.

FAQ on Becoming a Respiratory Therapist

  • Respiratory therapists work in intensive care units, emergency rooms, and pediatric units. They examine patients to assess their breathing disorders, conduct tests, and teach them how to use breathing equipment and medicines.

  • Prospective respiratory therapists need at least an associate degree to work. In some cases, registered respiratory therapists hold a bachelor's degree. Many employers also prefer respiratory therapists who have earned specialties.

  • Respiratory therapists need math skills to calibrate equipment and examine a patient's pulse or breathing rates. They also need the technical skills to administer oxygen, perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and administer medicine. Additionally, registered respiratory therapists need analytical thinking skills and strong interpersonal skills.

  • Earning an associate in respiratory therapy degree typically takes 12-24 months. Students pursuing a bachelor's degree take up to four years. It takes additional time to earn certifications and state licensure.

Resources for Respiratory Therapists

  • NBRC State Licensure Database

    The NBRC's website features a database that enables prospective respiratory therapists to find a state licensure agency. Across the country, 49 states recognize the NBRC's credentialing programs for licensure.

  • Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care

    Established in 2008, CoARC accredits academic respiratory care programs. The website features a database to find accredited programs and program outcomes. CoARC also offers service awards and scholarships to registered respiratory therapists, as well as a job board.

  • PubMED

    The United States National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health offers the PubMED database as a free resource for registered respiratory therapists and students. The website features over 30 million abstracts of citations, journals, and books.

  • Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality

    The AHRQ aims to raise the quality and safety of healthcare. Registered respiratory therapists enjoy access to data and analytics as well as data-based research on the agency's website. Healthcare professionals also gain tools that improve their practice. The website publishes funding and training opportunities.

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