Respiratory therapists work in hospitals, doctor's offices, care facilities and private homes to care for patients with respiratory, or lung-related, problems. Patients range from premature infants to adults with asthma, and advanced respiratory therapists often care for patients on respirators or are recovering from a major illness. Therapists work under the supervision of physicians and are responsible for diagnosing and treating all respiratory conditions.
When working with patients, respiratory therapists ask questions and perform limited physical exams to assess lung capacity. They also perform blood work to test oxygen, carbon dioxide and pH levels in the blood. Respiratory therapists must be able to interpret results and create a suitable treatment plan.
Respiratory therapists should be detail oriented, compassionate and interested in math and science. Physical stamina is also important as they spend a lot of time on their feet or moving between patients. For those who want to work with patients, but are unable to attend medical school, respiratory therapy is a promising option.
Degrees in respiratory therapy
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), an associate degree is required to become a respiratory therapist, and a bachelor's or master's degree is often preferred for advancement.
- Associate degree in respiratory therapy. Associate degree programs generally take two to three years to complete and include coursework in anatomy, pharmacology, microbiology, physiology, chemistry, physics and mathematics.
- Bachelor of Science in respiratory therapy. Many respiratory therapists choose to pursue a bachelor's degree after earning an associate degree. Online bachelor's degree completion programs allow students to complete their bachelor's degree while working as a respiratory therapist.
- Master of Science in respiratory therapy. A master's degree requires one to two years of additional study after the bachelor's degree. Respiratory therapists hoping to advance from general care to critical care or supervisory roles may benefit from a master's degree.
Becoming a respiratory therapist requires hands-on training as well as class work, so online degrees in respiratory therapy often require students to spend a certain amount of time on campus. Time in residence is used to work in labs and gain experience working with patients.
All of the above online health care degree programs prepare students for licensing, which is required in 48 states. Once licensed, certified respiratory therapists may take additional exams to become registered respiratory therapists (RRTs). Intensive-care specialties and supervisory roles often require RRT certification.
Respiratory Therapy Careers
According to the BLS and the American Association for Respiratory Care, hospitals are the largest employers of respiratory therapists. In 2009, approximately 80 percent of respiratory therapists worked in hospitals, but opportunities also exist in physicians' offices, specialized nursing facilities and home health care services.
Many recent graduates begin their careers in hospitals working under the supervision of more experienced respiratory therapists and other physicians. As they gain experience, respiratory therapists often advance from general practice to treating critical care patients, including premature infants and adults on life support.
The job outlook for respiratory therapists is strong: the BLS reports that employment of respiratory therapists should increase by 21 percent from 2008 to 2018, much faster than the national average. This growth is due to an aging baby-boomer population and advances in respiratory technology and detection. Careers in respiratory therapy also pay relatively well. According to the BLS, respiratory therapists nationwide earned a mean annual income of $58,670 in 2016.
Expected Job Growth
(2014 - 2024)
At a glance:
- Job opportunities: Respiratory therapists work in hospitals, physicians' offices, nursing homes and private home care
- Mean salary for respiratory therapists (2016): $58,670
- Associate degree programs can train respiratory therapists in approximately two years
- The field of respiratory therapy is expected to grow much faster than average from 2008 to 2018