Respiratory Therapist Job Description

Respiratory therapist assisting boy with inhaler treatment

Respiratory therapist assisting boy with inhaler treatment

Respiratory therapists care for patients who have trouble breathing—for example, from a chronic respiratory disease, such as asthma or emphysema.

Their Job Description: Respiratory therapists and respiratory therapy technicians—also known as respiratory care practitioners—evaluate, treat, and care for patients with breathing or other cardiopulmonary disorders.

Practicing under the direction of a physician, respiratory therapists assume primary responsibility for all respiratory care therapeutic treatments and diagnostic procedures, including the supervision of respiratory therapy technicians. Respiratory therapy technicians follow specific, well-defined respiratory care procedures under the direction of respiratory therapists and physicians.

In clinical practice, many of the daily duties of therapists and technicians overlap. However, therapists generally have greater responsibility than technicians. For example, respiratory therapists consult with physicians and other health care staff to help develop and modify patient care plans. Respiratory therapists also are more likely to provide complex therapy requiring considerable independent judgment, such as caring for patients on life support in intensive-care units of hospitals.

As part of the respiratory therapist job description they evaluate and treat all types of patients, ranging from premature infants whose lungs are not fully developed to elderly people whose lungs are diseased. Respiratory therapists provide temporary relief to patients with chronic asthma or emphysema, and they give emergency care to patients who are victims of a heart attack, stroke, drowning, or shock.

Working Environment

Respiratory therapists generally work between 35 and 40 hours a week. Because hospitals operate around the clock, therapists may work evenings, nights, or weekends. They spend long periods standing and walking between patients’ rooms. In an emergency, therapists work under the stress of the situation. Respiratory therapists employed in home health care must travel frequently to patients’ homes.

Respiratory therapists are trained to work with gases stored under pressure. Adherence to safety precautions and regular maintenance and testing of equipment minimize the risk of injury. As in many other health occupations, respiratory therapists are exposed to infectious diseases, but by carefully following proper procedures they can minimize the risks.

Training and Qualifications - to be a Respiratory Therapist

An associate degree is required to become a respiratory therapist. Training is offered at the postsecondary level by colleges and universities, medical schools, vocational-technical institutes, and the Armed Forces. Most programs award associate or bachelor’s degree and prepare graduates for jobs as advanced respiratory therapists. A limited number of associate degree programs lead to jobs as entry-level respiratory therapists. According to the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), 45 entry-level and 334 advanced respiratory therapy programs were accredited in the United States in 2006.

Licensing and Credentialing

In 48 states and the U.S. Territories Respiratory Therapists are regulated. The usual method to be a credentialed and licensed Respiratory Therapist is:
1) Graduate from an accredited program of respiratory therapy; usually a two year program
2) Pass national exams for respiratory therapists and obtain a Certification as a Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT).
3) Apply for licensure in the state you wish to practice in.

Important Points

Job opportunities should be very good.

An associate degree is the minimum educational requirement, but a bachelor’s or master’s degree may be important for advancement.

All States, except Alaska and Hawaii, require respiratory therapists to be licensed.

Hospitals will account for the vast majority of job openings, but a growing number of openings will arise in other settings

Career Progression

Respiratory therapists, especially those with a bachelor’s or master’s degree, also may advance to supervisory or managerial positions in a respiratory therapy department. Respiratory therapists in home health care and equipment rental firms may become branch managers. Some respiratory therapists advance by moving into teaching positions. Others use the knowledge gained as a respiratory therapist to work in another industry, such as developing, marketing, or selling pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

Resources for Respiratory Therapist Job Description:

Respiratory Therapist: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition.

American Association for Respiratory Care