How to Become a Respiratory Therapist

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5 Steps to Becoming a Respiratory Therapist

Step 1 Enroll in an accredited respiratory therapist program.

Students should seek programs that are properly accredited. The Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care is a primary organization that accredits respiratory therapist training programs in the U.S. As of 2018, there were more than 430 CoARC accredited programs. There are other nationally recognized accrediting bodies as well, though.

Step 2 Complete an associate or bachelor’s degree.

An associate degree is the minimum educational requirement to become a certified respiratory therapists; however, many employers prefer to hire candidates who have earned bachelor’s degrees. The American Association of Respiratory Care provides a list of colleges that offer bachelor’s degrees in respiratory care; however, students should inquire with their college of choice to determine their available degree options.

Step 3 Complete a credentialing exam from the National Board for Respiratory Care.

The NBRC accredits and recertifies nearly 30,000 candidates each year. Although there are many different certifications, most candidates pursue the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) or the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) designations. The CRT certification is the entry-level certification in the field of respiratory care.

Step 4 Earn state licensure.

Every state except Alaska requires respiratory therapists to be licensed in their home state – although Alaska recommends certification as well. The American Association for Respiratory Care provides a list of state licensure contacts on its website.

Step 5 Maintain certification.

Respiratory therapists must renew their licenses. Fees and continuing education requirements vary by state. The AARC provides a list of licensure costs and renewal requirements.

FAQ on Becoming a Respiratory Therapist

  • The American Association for Respiratory Care offers many different specialty certifications, including long-term care, neo-natal pediatrics, surface and air transport, pulmonary rehabilitation, polysomnography, respiratory therapy education, critical care, case management and pulmonary diagnostics. Earning one or more of these specialty certifications can potentially lead to increased earnings and a wider range of career opportunities.

  • The AARC provides a job board that focuses exclusively on respiratory care positions. National job boards such as ZipRecruiter, Indeed, Monster and GlassDoor also are solid options to begin a career search. Long-term care facilities and hospitals also post jobs opportunities on their websites.

  • The National Board of Respiratory Care offers three options to maintain both the CRT and RRT certifications. Respiratory therapists can learn more about these requirements through the NBRC’s continuing competency handbook. The AARC also offers a number of online courses that can satisfy continuing education requirements.

  • The Registered Respiratory Therapist designation is the highest standard for respiratory therapists and demonstrates competency in all aspects of the field. Candidates must have a minimum of four years working as a Certified Respiratory Therapist, as well as complete a minimum of 62 semester hours of college credit. Respiratory therapists who earn this certification have the broadest potential for career options – and some employers may even require RRT certification for employment.

  • Respiratory therapists work closely with people and should be comfortable working as part of a care team. In addition to treatment, they should provide emotional support to patients and understand their various needs as it pertains to respiratory care. They need to be very detail oriented to ensure they follow treatment plans accordingly and accurately record patient treatment information. Lastly, they should have a strong grasp of human anatomy and physiology, science and math to help properly determine correct medicine dosages and ventilator settings.

Respiratory Therapist Salary & Job Growth

As noted, the field of respiratory care is expected to see high job growth over the next decade. This section provides insight into average annual salaries and projected job growth.

Nationally, the median annual salary for respiratory therapists in May of 2017 was just under $60,000, the BLS reports. The top 10 percent of respiratory therapists, however, earned more than $83,000 annually. Respiratory therapists have three primary places for employment. Following are the median annual salaries for each:

  • Private physician’s offices: $61,370
  • Skilled nursing facilities: $60,320
  • Hospitals: $59,900

Like many skilled-care positions, wages usually are higher for CRTs working in populous states and large metropolitan areas. Respiratory therapists with years of experience also tend to command higher wages than entry-level workers. Following are state-level wage and employment data for respiratory therapists.

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%
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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.

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.

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Top 5 Respiratory Therapist Associations & Groups

Respiratory therapists enjoy a wide range of support from industry groups in their specialty field. These organizations provide important networking opportunities with like-minded professionals, career development resources and other key opportunities to help respiratory therapists advance their careers and increase their professional knowledge.

Additional Resources for Respiratory Therapists

Working and aspiring respiratory therapists can use the following resources to gain additional insight into the field, find ways to pay for college, or find helpful industry-focused apps for their smartphones.