Have you ever considered working in the health industry field? Working as a registered respiratory therapist (RRT) can be a rewarding career, and the need for these professionals is on the rise amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a respiratory therapist, you’d work directly with patients by evaluating their lung capacity and functions. This profession also provides you with career flexibility, as it presents various job opportunities.
Working in respiratory therapy requires a good education, great attitude, and a strong work ethic. If you think this profession is right for you, we’ve assembled a guide to give you all the information you’ll need about this particular career path.
What Does a Respiratory Therapist do?
Broadly speaking, a respiratory therapist deals with anyone who has difficulties breathing, whether due to asthma, allergies, COPD, or even sleep apnea. You’ll evaluate, diagnose, and treat each patient’s unique situation and illness.
A respiratory therapist must oversee their patients’ medication, therapy, or any other treatment alternative.
Types of Treatments Respiratory Therapists Administer
- Oxygen therapy– Oxygen therapy is the administering of supplemental oxygen to any patient who is low on O2 for reasons including carbon monoxide poisoning and cluster headaches.
- Breathing treatments– A breathing treatment is administered as a mist that’s inhaled by the patient to distribute medications such as steroids into the lungs.
- Mechanical ventilation–Mechanical ventilation performs breathing functions for those who are unable to respirate on their own. This machine specifically pushes air into the patient’s lungs to get oxygen into the body.
- Cardiopulmonary resuscitation– Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is the act of performing chest compressions alongside artificial ventilation on a person to restore breathing function.
- Humidity-aerosol therapy– This is the use of air, water vapor, and aerosol to administer treatment to a patient through breathing in order to combat issues that are reducing flow through a person’s airway.
- Pulmonary drainage procedures-This procedure involves placing a tube inside the chest cavity and in through the lung to release built-up air, blood, or fluid.
What Types of Diseases and Illnesses do Respiratory Therapists Treat
Respiratory therapists must recognize and treat various forms of issues that affect the respiratory system, including inflammation of the airway, infection in the airway, and a lack of oxygen. But what problems do respiratory therapists work with on a daily basis?
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)is a chronic inflammation of the lungs that leads to an obstruction of airflow and oxygen. Symptoms include mucus in the lungs, trouble breathing, constant coughing or wheezing, and frequent respiratory infection.
The biggest cause of COPD is cigarette smoke, but it can also be caused by breathing in dangerous particles and gasses. COPD can lead to more serious conditions such as heart disease and lung cancers.
You can treat COPD with medications and treatments such as inhalers with steroids and bronchial dilater, oxygen therapy, and pulmonary rehabilitation.
Sleep apnea, a serious condition when the airway becomes blocked during sleep,can cause a person to stop breathing multiple times throughout the night. The duration can either last a few seconds or for long periods of time. Untreated sleep apnea can cause serious complications and even death.
A large neck circumference, being overweight, or, in children, enlarged tonsils or adenoids, are a few major causes of sleep apnea. It can cause serious complications when left untreated such as hypertension, stroke, heart failure, and diabetes. Kids with sleep apnea have been known to have trouble focusing in school, even falling asleep during class.
The most common form of treating sleep apnea is a CPAP or BiPAP machine. As a respiratory therapist, you’ll determine if a machine is needed, which one needs to be used, and monitor the machines to help get the patient’s sleep apnea under control.
Asthma is a breathing condition in which the airways are restricted after becoming inflamed, constricted, and filled with mucus.
The cause of asthma isn’t well-known, but it’s thought to be a combination of genetics and environmental attributes. Asthma attacks can occur during strenuous exercise, allergies, cold air, and smoke, among other things.
Respiratory therapists need to understand what asthma looks like in a patient and the reaction they might have to a particular medication or treatment. Treatments for asthma include a bronchiolar dilator inhaler, albuterol treatment, and controlling allergy symptoms.
Emphysema is a disease where the lungs’ air sacs are damaged, creating breathing difficulties. Overly damaged air sacs will explode and create large craters. This in turn can trap old air, making it difficult for fresh air to get into the lungs and for oxygen to get into the bloodstream.
People who have emphysema often experience persistent coughing, difficulty breathing, and shortness of breath. Smoking is the main cause.
Emphysema can be treated with an array of options depending on the patient and the stage of the disease. Treatment may include inhalers and bronchial dilators, supplemental oxygen, and steroids.
Career Opportunities for Respiratory Therapists
A respiratory therapist is needed in almost any type of healthcare setting. You can work in a hospital, private practice, nursing home, or even in your patient’s home. Respiratory therapists can also be found in the neonatal intensive care wards helping premature infants learn to breathe, or in the emergency room next to ER doctors releasing blood buildup from a victim’s lungs. Similar allied health occupations include physical therapy assistant and occupational therapy assistant.
Sleep Medicine Respiratory Care
More people are turning to sleep medicine care and treatment as information around sleep apnea is becoming more well-known.
CPAP and BiPAP machines are the most common treatments. They provide oxygen to the patient throughout their sleep to make sure they’re continuously breathing.
A respiratory therapist will determine if a patient needs a sleep machine and what settings will provide them optimal treatment. It’s also the responsibility of a respiratory therapist to monitor every patient therapy treatment to ensure their apnea is under control.
Neonatal/Pediatric Respiratory Care Specialist (NPS)
This position will have you mainly working in a hospital or doctor’s office. You’ll work with children who can’t utilize 100% of their lung functions, whether due to birth defects, accidents and injuries, or illnesses.
As a neonatal respiratory care specialist, you’ll help provide infants the respiratory treatments needed to help mature their lungs and keep them healthy until they’re strong enough to breathe on their own.
A pediatric respiratory care specialist, on the other hand, will eitherassist hospitalized children with breathing disorders or deal with issues like astham and allergies in a private pediatric practice.
Adult Critical Care Specialty (ACCS)
The adult critical care field includes working in hospitals or rehab centers with adults suffering from conditions such as COPD, lung cancer, and pneumonia.
In this field, you’ll diagnose and treat patients who have any type of pulmonary emergency. In these cases, you’ll need to understand how to administer CPR, correctly do a pulmonary drainage procedure, and use mechanical ventilation.
Job Statistics for Respiratory Therapists and Similar Jobs
The respiratory therapy field offers good money in a rewarding career. Here are the job statistics for respiratory therapy care:
- Salary– The average annual salary for a respiratory therapist is $61,330 or $29.38 per hour.
- Job Outlook– This field has a predicted growth of 19% through the next 10 years.
- Number of current jobs- As of 2019, there were 135,800 respiratory therapy positions in the U.S.
Sleep Study Technician
A sleep study technician runs overnight and daytime sleep studies to determine whether a patient has sleep apnea, narcolepsy, or insomnia, among other disorders. It’s the sleep technician’s job to read data and graphs.
- Salary– The average annual salary of a sleep study technician is $53,120 or $25.54 per hour.
- Job Outlook– The predicted job outlook for sleep study technicians calls for a 7% increase in the need for this profession over the next 10 years.
- Number of current jobs– As of 2019, there are 337,800 technician jobs in the U.S.
Pulmonary Functioning Technician
- Salary– The average annual salary of a pulmonary functioning technician is $77,434 or $37 per hour.
- Job Outlook– The predicted job outlook is predicted to increase nearly 7% through the next 10 years.
- Number of Current Jobs– As of 2019, there are over 300,000 of these jobs in the U.S.
Becoming a respiratory therapist requires education, examinations, and clinical learning.
Degree Needed to Become a Respiratory Therapist
A respiratory therapist position generally requires a bachelor’s degree and previous job experience, though some places will accept an associate’s degree.
Your classes will vary depending on the area of concentration you’re interested in studying. There are many different options in this job field. The more popular areas of concentration are:
- Adult Critical Care
- Home Care
- Neo-natal/pediatric care
- Pulmonary function testing
- Cardiovascular technology
These concentrations, along with all other areas of respiratory therapy study, will include classes such as:
- Diagnostics in procedures and testing
Most colleges require an internship in a licensed facility being supervised by an educated professional. Once you’ve completed all of your classes, internships, and college exams, you then have to complete the NBRC and your state licensing testing.
What is the NBRC
The NBRC TMC exam is a multiple-choice test given to anyone who’s attempting to become a certified respiratory therapist. You’ll be given the entry-level certified respiratory therapist credentials if you pass the lower-level range. However, you can take the clinical simulation examination (CSE) once you’ve scored in the higher ranges. You’ll need to pass the CSE exam to earn the RRT credential.
Once you’ve passed all of the courses and examinations needed to be considered a registered respiratory therapist, you’ll then need to apply for you state license in the state you’ll be working in. It’s illegal to work as a respiratory therapist without obtaining your state license.
Schools to consider
Here’s a list of the top 15 respiratory therapist colleges:
- Midwestern State University
- Oregon Institute of Technology
- Boise State University
- University of Cincinnati
- Stony Brook University
- Texas State University
- The University of North Carolina at Charlotte
- Catherine University
- Nova Southeastern University
- Ball State University
- Jacksonville State University
- Purdue, Indiana University
- Florida SouthWestern State College
- Georgia State University
- Bowling Green State University
Here are our top 10 online respiratory therapy programs:
- Southern New Hampshire University
- University of Phoenix
- University of Cincinnati Online
- Utica College
- Central Christian College of Kansas
- Capella University
- Colorado State University
- University of Maryland Global Campus
- Simmons University
- Oregon Institute of Technology
Furthering Your Education
You can also obtain your master’s degree in respiratory therapy, giving you the education needed to be a teacher, researcher, or mid- to high-level clinical specialist. Although obtaining your master’s isn’t necessary to become a certified respiratory therapist, it can get you higher up the career ladder.
Most master’s degrees from a respiratory therapist program include a 24-credit curriculum which teaches current certified respiratory therapists how to excel in leadership skills, education and research roles, working in administrations and patient education, and all the necessary skills to work within a pharmacy setting or sleep medicine as a polysomnographer.
Programs in the field will set students up with the knowledge to achieve the job tasks designed for highly educated and highly credentialed professionals in the areas of:
- Cardiopulmonary physiology
- Clinical practice guidelines and protocols
- Research methods and designs
- Patient education
- Academic leadership
- Diagnostics and therapeutics
If you’re interested in moving your career to sleep medicine, you can look into a concentration area of your master’s degree in polysomnography. Here, you’ll focus your studies on sleep stages, diagnosing and treating apnea, instrumentation, and sleep physiology.
Our top 10 for master’s programs in respiratory therapy are:
- Texas State University
- University of Cincinnati
- Bellarmine University
- Northeastern University
- University of Missouri
- Loma Linda University
- Gannon University
- Nebraska Methodist College
- Rush University
- Canisius College
Duties of a Respiratory Therapist
Once you’ve completed school, you must understand the specific duties and requirements needed of you that may not be in the textbooks.
- Patience–You’ll usually receive patients after they’ve been diagnosed with an illness. They may come across as anxious or angry because they’re scared and panicked. But no matter how your patient reacts, being patient, calm, and professional is your duty.
- Good Communication skills–You’ll need to communicate clearly and professionally with your patient and their families, as well as a team of other physicians and staff.
- Impeccable organization skills–You’ll need to be able to keep each patient and their treatment plans separate and still be able to remember what needs to be done throughout the day. This may include meetings, appointments, and schedule checking, among other tasks.
- Leadership Skills– You must be a strong and professional leader who’s able to assign tasks and help your staff when needed. Plus, you need to know how to keep your staff on track and up to date with each patient and their charts.
- Accurate note-taking-As a respiratory therapist, your main duty once your patient has been diagnosed and started on treatments is to follow up and monitor their progress. You must be able to quickly decide if a treatment plan is problematic or ineffective while having the ability to change it as needed.
- Teaching Skills– Many patients who suffer from pulmonary disorders will need to learn to treat themselves, whether it be with a daily inhaler or a nightly CPAP machine. It’s your job to make sure the patients know exactly how to use the equipment and medications.
- Flexibility and Versatility– Depending on your specific job you may need to travel from room to room, facility to facility, or house to house to treat your patients. This is going to require flexible scheduling and possibly long hours, including travel. You may also be required to be on call if you work for a nursing home or hospital.
- Interpersonal skills– Although you may be in charge in certain situations, there are many times where you’ll need to follow the directions of a superior.
- Science and Math Skills– Understanding mathematics is important when prescribing and administering a patient’s medication. Additionally, having scientific aptitude in anatomy and physiology is key for understanding the human body and how it’ll react under certain medications and conditions.
Other Important Information to Consider Before Becoming a Respiratory Therapist
Working in any healthcare facility requires you to be around sick people who could have serious medical conditions that may or may not be contagious. For the sake of yourself and your patients, you want to be up to date on your vaccines and practice proper hygiene. This includes frequent handwashing, using sanitizer, and staying home when you’re not feeling well.
Additionally, technology is always improving, which means continuing your education is required to stay up to date on all changes and new methods of treatments and medications. That also applies to your licenses. You’re required to take 24-30 hours of continuing education courses every two or three years (depending on the state you practice in) for you to keep your respiratory therapist license. This is comprised of 15 hours of informal courses, such as online classes or tests, and 15 hours of formal education, which include college classes, conferences, or seminars.
Lastly, it’s important to remember that you can’t help everyone. Although your goal is to treat and help every patient that comes to you with an illness, you can’t perform miracles. You may find yourself dealing with severely ill patients, premature infants, COVID-19 victims, or those with a serious lung disease. Unfortunately, treatment won’t always work. Having the ability to accept this fact and still be able to work is crucial.
Being a respiratory therapist is a rewarding career. Having the ability to help people in all types of situations makes you a very important member of the healthcare world. As long as you’re willing to work hard to get through the required schooling and obtain RRT certification, this career will provide you with the ability to change the life of so many patients that come in and out of your care.