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Respiratory Therapist

Job Outlook: 21% (Much faster than average)

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What Respiratory Therapists Do About this section

Respiratory therapists
Respiratory therapists interview and examine patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders.

Respiratory therapists care for patients who have trouble breathing—for example, because of conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Their patients range from premature infants with undeveloped lungs to older adults whose lungs are diseased.

Duties

Respiratory therapists typically do the following:

  • Interview and examine patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders
  • Consult with physicians about patients’ conditions and developing treatment plans
  • Perform diagnostic tests
  • Treat patients using a variety of methods
  • Monitor and record patients’ progress
  • Teach patients how to take medications and use equipment

Respiratory therapists work closely with registered nurses, physicians and surgeons, and medical assistants. They use various tests to evaluate patients. For example, respiratory therapists administer pulmonary function tests to assess lung capacity by having patients breathe into an instrument that measures the volume and flow of oxygen when they inhale and exhale. Therapists also may take blood samples and use a blood gas analyzer to test oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

Respiratory therapists also perform treatment to clear airways for improved breathing. For example, therapists may do chest physiotherapy to remove mucus from the lungs by tapping the patient’s chest and encouraging him or her to cough.

Respiratory therapists in emergency settings may connect patients who cannot breathe on their own to ventilators that deliver oxygen to the lungs. They set up and monitor the equipment to ensure that the patient is receiving the correct amount of oxygen at the correct rate.

Respiratory therapists who work in home care teach patients and their families to use ventilators and other life-support systems. During these visits, they may inspect and clean equipment, check the home for environmental hazards, and ensure that patients know how to use their medications. Therapists also make emergency home visits when necessary.

In some medical facilities, respiratory therapists are involved in related areas, such as diagnosing breathing problems for people with sleep apnea and counseling people on how to stop smoking.

Work Environment About this section

Respiratory therapists
Respiratory therapists treat patients in every age group.

Respiratory therapists held about 135,100 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of respiratory therapists were as follows:

Hospitals; state, local, and private 82%
Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities) 4
Offices of physicians 2

Respiratory therapists work in various areas of a hospital, including emergency rooms, critical care units, and neonatal intensive care units.

Respiratory therapists may stand for long periods and may need to lift or turn patients.

Injuries and Illnesses

Like other healthcare workers, respiratory therapists may be exposed to patients who have infectious diseases. They also may experience strains or sprains when lifting or turning patients. Because of this, they must take precautions to minimize their risk of illness or injury.

Work Schedules

Most respiratory therapists work full time. Because they may work in medical facilities that are always open, such as hospitals, they may have shifts that include nights, weekends, or holidays.

How to Become a Respiratory Therapist About this section

Respiratory therapists
Respiratory therapists typically need an associate’s degree, but some have bachelor’s degrees.

Respiratory therapists typically need an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy. Some employers prefer to hire candidates who have a bachelor’s degree. Respiratory therapists must be licensed in all states except Alaska; requirements vary by state.

Education

Respiratory therapists typically need at least an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy from a program approved by the American Medical Association, such as those accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC). Employers may prefer that applicants have a bachelor’s degree.

Some programs require applicants to fulfill prerequisites. High school students interested in applying to respiratory therapy programs should take courses in biology, algebra, chemistry, and physics.

In addition to respiratory therapy programs offered by colleges and vocational–technical institutes, a CoARC-accredited program in the Armed Forces leads to an associate’s degree.

Respiratory therapy programs typically include courses in human anatomy and physiology, and therapeutic and diagnostic procedures and tests. These programs also have clinical components that allow students to gain supervised, practical experience in treating patients.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Respiratory therapists are required to be licensed in all states except Alaska, where national certification is recommended. Licensure requirements vary but usually include passing a state or professional certification exam. For specific requirements, contact a state’s health board.

The National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) is the main certifying body for respiratory therapists. The Board offers two levels of certification: Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) and Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT). Candidates typically sit for the CRT exam. After successful completion, CRTs may take an additional exam to earn RRT certification. Some employers require that candidates earn RRT certification before being hired or within a specified amount of time on the job.

Important Qualities

Compassion. Respiratory therapists should be able to provide emotional support to patients undergoing treatment. They must be sympathetic to a patient’s needs.

Detail oriented. Respiratory therapists must stay focused to ensure that a patient receives appropriate treatments and medications. They must be meticulous about monitoring patients and recording information related to their care.

Interpersonal skills. Respiratory therapists interact and build relationships with patients. They often work as part of a team and must be able to take direction from others, such as a supervising physician.

Patience. Respiratory therapists may work for long periods with patients who need special attention.

Problem-solving skills. Respiratory therapists must evaluate patients’ symptoms, consult with other healthcare professionals, and recommend and administer the appropriate treatments.

Pay About this section

Respiratory Therapists

Median annual wages, May 2021

Healthcare diagnosing or treating practitioners

$81,270

Respiratory therapists

$61,830

Total, all occupations

$45,760

 

The median annual wage for respiratory therapists was $61,830 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $47,380, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $95,540.

In May 2021, the median annual wages for respiratory therapists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Hospitals; state, local, and private $61,940
Offices of physicians 60,570
Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities) 60,570

Most respiratory therapists work full time. Because they may work in medical facilities that are always open, such as hospitals, they may have shifts that include nights, weekends, or holidays.

Job Outlook About this section

Respiratory Therapists

Percent change in employment, projected 2020-30

Respiratory therapists

23%

Healthcare diagnosing or treating practitioners

12%

Total, all occupations

8%

 

Employment of respiratory therapists is projected to grow 23 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations.

About 10,100 openings for respiratory therapists are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.

Employment

Growth in the middle-aged and older population will lead to an increased incidence of respiratory conditions such as pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other disorders that can permanently damage the lungs or restrict lung function. The aging population will in turn lead to an increased demand for respiratory therapy services and treatments, mostly in hospitals.

In addition, a growing emphasis on reducing readmissions in hospitals may result in more demand for respiratory therapists in nursing homes and in doctors’ offices.

Advances in preventing and detecting disease, improved medications, and more sophisticated treatments will also increase the demand for respiratory therapists. Other conditions affecting the general population, such as respiratory problems due to smoking and air pollution, along with respiratory emergencies, will continue to create demand for respiratory therapists.

Employment projections data for respiratory therapists, 2020-30
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2020 Projected Employment, 2030 Change, 2020-30 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Respiratory therapists

29-1126 135,100 166,200 23 31,100 Get data

Contacts for More Information About this section

For more information about respiratory therapists, including a list of state licensing agencies, visit

American Association for Respiratory Care

For a list of accredited educational programs for respiratory care practitioners, visit

Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care

For information on gaining credentials in respiratory care, visit

The National Board for Respiratory Care

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Respiratory Therapists

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