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Respiratory Therapy Career

Career Description

A Respiratory Therapist evaluates, treats, and cares for patients with breathing or other cardiopulmonary disorders.

Common Work Tasks

  • Assume primary responsibility for all respiratory care therapeutic treatments and diagnostic procedures, including the supervision of respiratory therapy technicians
  • Consult with physicians and other health care staff to help develop and modify patient care plans
  • Provide complex therapy requiring considerable independent judgment, such as caring for patients on life support in intensive-care units of hospitals
  • Evaluate and treat all types of patients,  ranging from premature infants whose lungs are not fully developed to elderly people whose lungs are diseased
  • 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
  • Interview patients, perform limited physical examinations, and conduct diagnostic tests
  • Test a patient’s breathing capacity and determine the concentration of oxygen and other gases in a patient’s blood
  • Draw an arterial blood sample, place it in a blood gas analyzer, and relay the results to a physician, who then makes treatment decisions
  • Use oxygen or oxygen mixtures, chest physiotherapy, and aerosol medications—liquid medications suspended in a gas that forms a mist which is inhaled- to treat patients
  • Teach patients and their families to use ventilators and other life-support systems

Other Job Titles

Respiratory Therapists are also known by other titles,  including:

  • Respiratory Therapy Technicians
  • Respiratory Care Practitioners
  • Physical Therapists
  • Registered Nurses

Education,  Training, and Experience

Education and Training
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.

Certification and Licensure
A license is required to practice as a respiratory therapist, except in Alaska and Hawaii.  Also, most employers require respiratory therapists to maintain a cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification.

Licensure is usually based, in large part, on meeting the requirements for certification from the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). The board offers the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) credential to those who graduate from entry-level or advanced programs accredited by CAAHEP or the Committee on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC) and who also pass an exam.

The board also awards the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) to CRTs who have graduated from advanced programs and pass two separate examinations. Supervisory positions and intensive-care specialties usually require the RRT.

  Therapists should be sensitive to a patient’s physical and psychological needs.  Respiratory care practitioners must pay attention to detail, follow instructions, and work as part of a team. In addition, operating advanced equipment requires proficiency with computers.


The median annual salary for a Respiratory Therapist is $50,000. The top 10 percent earn more than $67,000, and the lowest 10 percent earn less than $37,000.  Median earnings in the industries employing the largest number of respiratory therapists are:

  • General Medical and Surgical Hospitals - $50,790
  • Specialty (except Psychiatric and Substance Abuse) Hospitals  - $51,960
  • Nursing Care Facilities - $50,000
  • Employment Services - $60,420
  • Consumer Goods Rental  - $43,830

Job Outlook

  • 2006-2016 Employment growth:  19%
  • Number of new jobs created 2006-2016: 23,000
  • Employment 2006 : 122,000
  • Employment 2016:  145,000
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