How To Become a Respiratory Therapist in 6 Steps (With FAQs)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated March 27, 2022 | Published February 4, 2020

Updated March 27, 2022

Published February 4, 2020

Respiratory therapists are vital members of a healthcare team who assess, monitor, educate and form treatment plans for patients who have a chronic respiratory disease like emphysema or asthma. They also assist patients who need help breathing, such as premature babies and people who have suffered a heart attack.

A respiratory therapist needs to have an in-depth understanding of how the cardiopulmonary system works, and they must be knowledgeable about the range of treatment possibilities and the latest related technology. Besides attaining the necessary knowledge, there are several steps you must complete if you want to pursue this career. In this article, we will explore how to become a respiratory therapist and what they do.

What does a respiratory therapist do?

A respiratory therapist is a highly specialized healthcare professional trained in pulmonary medicine who can find employment in a range of clinical settings. The daily work of a respiratory therapist could include the following duties:

  • Assessing patients and diagnosing lung and breathing disorders

  • Performing physical exams on the chest to aid with diagnosis

  • Consulting patients to find out about their lives and the problems they are experiencing

  • Creating treatment plans, including medication and therapy

  • Consulting with other members of the healthcare team to recommend treatment changes as necessary following patient evaluation

  • Using specialized equipment to determine the levels of oxygen and other gases in blood samples or breath

  • Supporting and managing patients who are using artificial breathing devices such as ventilators

  • Attending emergency situations for patient care and initiating and managing life support during transport and while in the emergency department

Respiratory therapists help patients and their families understand their diagnoses and educate them about their conditions, treatments and lifestyle choices that could help to improve their lives.

Average salary

A respiratory therapist often works as part of a team of healthcare professionals. They can find employment in a hospital's pulmonary or respiratory care department or in a nursing care facility. The factors that affect salary include the respiratory therapist's experience, education and qualifications as well as the location and size of the employer.

  • Common salary in the U.S.: $32.97 per hour

  • Salaries range from $15.85 to $56.15 per hour

How to become a respiratory therapist

A career as a respiratory therapist requires several qualifications and a comprehensive training schedule to ensure you are adequately prepared to offer your patients the expertise and care that they need. Here are the steps you must follow to begin a career as a respiratory therapist:

1. Enroll in an associate or bachelor's degree program

You will need to complete either an associate or a bachelor's degree in respiratory care to qualify for a career as a respiratory therapist. Make sure that the course is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care. You can begin a career with an associate's degree, but most employers prefer to hire candidates who have a bachelor's degree, as they have a more in-depth understanding of the subject matter. If you need help finding a college, the American Association of Respiratory Care provides a list of suitable courses.

For both degrees, there will be theoretical classroom lessons, laboratory sessions and practical clinical experience designed to deliver in-depth knowledge of respiratory care. The subjects covered may include the following:

  • Human anatomy

  • Cardiopulmonary physiology

  • Neonatal, pediatric and adult respiratory care

  • The clinical application of care

  • Treatment and diagnosis procedures

  • Methods of artificial ventilation

  • Pharmacology

  • Pathophysiology

  • Biochemical respiratory theory

In addition, you will learn about promoting good respiratory health and how to prevent respiratory disease.

Related: When a Professional Degree Will Help You Advance in Your Career

2. Work on developing relevant soft skills

A respiratory therapist will be working closely with patients, and as well as a good education, you will also need appropriate soft skills so that you can offer your patients the best possible care. Throughout your education, work on developing the following soft skills that are essential to a respiratory therapist:

  • Critical thinking: This is an important skill because you must be able to make an accurate assessment of all the information you have about a patient. Use your critical thinking skills to correctly judge the situation and then take the best action, which could be a medication plan, therapy or emergency ventilation. You must be able to evaluate patient priorities and make a concluding diagnosis. In an emergency, the health and wellbeing of the patient could be dependent on your judgment.

  • Compassion: Patients that you interact with could be under considerable stress if they are having trouble breathing. Although your health may be perfect, you must be able to consider how they feel in the situation and communicate with them accordingly. Your aim should be to give the patient the best level of care that you can and to make sure that they leave your consultation feeling better than they did before. You need to use compassion to make sure you can deliver this level of care.

  • Detail-oriented: As a respiratory therapist, you will likely be using intricate equipment with small scales of measurement. You must be able to accurately deliver the amount of medication or oxygen that a patient needs. You will follow detailed treatment plans, which could be written by several different people, and you must ensure that all the details are complied with consistency.

  • Active listening: Successful respiratory therapists ensure that they always listen to their patients and take note of the smallest details. You must be able to ask appropriate questions and listen carefully to the answers that a patient or their family offers. As part of a healthcare team, you will be given information by various people, which you must listen to and act upon to ensure that the patients are given all the necessary care and treatments.

Related: Soft Skills: Definition and Examples

3. Complete the credentialing exam

The American Association for Respiratory Care offers the Therapist Multiple-Choice accreditation exam. It is possible to earn two different credentials, the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) or the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT).

The CRT is the most basic, entry-level credential and is offered to students who achieve the lower cut-off score. If you do well in the exam and achieve a high score, then you earn the CRT credential and can take the Clinical Simulation Examination. Success in this exam means that you can be certified as a Registered Respiratory Therapist. The RRT designation means that you will be recognized as achieving a standard of excellence.

4. Obtain a license to practice as a respiratory therapist in your state

To work as a respiratory therapist, you will need a state license. This applies to all states except Alaska, who is currently reviewing their requirements. There is considerable variation between states, so you should check on the requirements for yours. Some states require biannual renewal, while others require it only every other year. The requirements for continuing education also differs, starting at zero required hours and going up to 30 hours.

5. Prepare your resume and cover letter

You must prepare your resume so that it showcases your skills to employers. A great resume and cover letter could make the difference for whether you are asked for an interview. Consider your education, soft skills and relevant experience. Include everything in your resume that makes you stand out as the best possible candidate.

Research job listings both online and in specialized industry publications to find suitable positions and see exactly what employers are looking for. Tailor your resume and application to match each job you apply for.

Related: 7 Powerful Ways to Start a Cover Letter (With Examples)

6. Earn certifications

Once you have been working as a respiratory therapist for a while, you may want to add a certification to your list of qualifications. There are a variety of specialized certifications offered by the American Association for Respiratory Care. They are not legally required, but they show your status as a dynamic professional who wants to develop in their career. If you work in a highly specialized area, an employer may require specific certificates. Some of the available certifications include:

  • Long-Term Care: This certification is for respiratory therapists who have been working in a long-term care facility or rehabilitation center or have been working with chronic disease patients in another setting.

  • Neonatal-Pediatrics: If you have worked with children and young babies, you could pursue this certification. This specialization involves working in neonatal respiratory care, often with premature babies who need help breathing. You may be helping children who are born with lung disorders, or you might be offering emergency care in critical situations.

  • Surface and Air Transport: When there is an emergency and patients need to be transported to the emergency care department of the hospital, the respiratory therapist cares for them in the helicopter or ambulance. They work alongside the doctor or emergency medical technician to keep the patient alive and breathing. This certification identifies you as an RT that can competently deliver respiratory therapy in an emergency.

Frequently asked questions

Here are a few commonly asked questions about being a respiratory therapist to help you learn more about the position:

Where can I find a job as a respiratory therapist?

Search on the Indeed job search page to find available jobs in your area or contact the American Association for Respiratory Care for help and advice on careers in respiratory care.

Are respiratory therapists in demand?

According to the bureau of labor statistics, growth for respiratory therapists is projected to increase by 21% from 2018 to 2028, which is much faster than the average for most occupations. As growth in the middle-aged and elderly population occurs, there will be an increase in respiratory conditions that require the attention of a respiratory therapist.

What are some alternative career choices?

Respiratory therapists are an essential part of the healthcare team and have a passion for helping people live healthier lives and manage their conditions. Here are some related career choices that you may want to consider:

1. Registered nurse

National Average Salary: $33.89 per hour

Primary Duties: These healthcare professionals educate and care for patients and provide treatment and therapies as prescribed by a physician. They act as patient advocates and aim to provide high-level patient care. Registered nurses also maintain accurate medical records for patients and assist doctors with their patient care duties.

2. Occupational therapist

National Average Salary: $1,418 per week

Primary Duties: Occupational therapists help patients with disabilities, illnesses or injuries live their daily lives. They assist with recovery and adaptation to life at home following a stay in the hospital, which may include relearning or improving skills they need in order to live independently. These professionals are responsible for evaluating patients, designing treatment plans and monitoring patient progress.

3. Physical therapist

National Average Salary: $1,471 per week

Primary Duties: Physical therapists use their skills to aid patients who are ill or injured recover and improve their mobility. They also help reduce or manage patients' pain. Their aim is to rehabilitate those with injuries or chronic conditions. They use hands-on care to work with their patients, and they often create treatment plans to help them regain mobility and restore motor function.

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