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Students interested in pursuing a career in respiratory care therapy must enter an accredited program, earning either a associate or bachelor's degree. Students will learn a variety of sciences, as well as participate in practical supervised sessions in a clinical setting that provide students the hours and experience necessary for licensure. Students of such a programs will learn to operate the machinery that is responsible for patient breathing when they are unable to breathe on their own, as well as provide care and treatment for patients experiencing difficulty breathing. Additionally, students will learn medical terminology and the methods used for keeping and updating records in regards to patient history and treatment plans.
A curriculum in respiratory care therapy may include:
A career in respiratory care therapy requires individuals to be licensed by their state (except Alaska). Licensure procedure varies by state, though typically requires a short program of study, exam and fee. Additionally, therapists may pursue certification, which increases your chances of being hired. Certification is available through the National Board of Respiratory Care (NBRC) and offered at two levels. The first is Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT), which requires a minimum of an associate degree to take. The second is Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) which requires an individual to have a CRT and a certain amount of experience in order to take the exam.
Individuals working in the field of respiratory care therapy work alongside physicians in order to provide care and support for patients. Individuals in this field will document patient progress, assist in treatment plans, provide regular care for long term patients, and maintain equipment related to machine facilitated breathing. Additionally, respiratory care therapists are responsible for the education responsible in treating respiratory conditions, such as offering instruction for patients suffering from asthma on how and when to use inhalers.
Respiratory Therapist Schools
Below you will find a list of the accredited college and universities offering degree programs in respiratory therapy. The types of schools offering RT degree programs include vocational schools, community colleges, and 4-year colleges.
Community Colleges – Within the RT field, a community college will offer two types of college degrees which are the Associate of Applied Science or Association of Science. Both degree types are widely recognized by employers and hospitals across the country with AS being more research focused and the AAS more career focused. Upon completion of the RT degree programs at a community college, students will be eligible to sit for credential exams administered by the National Board for Respiratory Care.
Vocational Schools – A vocational school offering programs for respiratory therapy can also be known as a medical school or technical school. In either case, these entities focus on career-oriented programs for future respiratory therapists that result in a certificate, diploma, or degree. The combination of academic preparation, clinical exposure, and labs prepare students to sit for CRT and RRT credential exams.
Four-Year Colleges – As a matter of course, a 4-year college or university will provide students with a broad array of classes including general education coursework plus professional curriculum for RT’s. Accredited colleges and universities have constructed two primary tracks for students to pursue towards a bachelor of science degree in respiratory therapy. The first is a two-year program designed to be additive with an associate degree in respiratory therapy. The other is a 4-year inclusive program for students with no prior RT experience or training.
Competencies for Respiratory Therapists
An extensive set of data from the AARC reveals a set of core attributes, skills, and knowledge expectations for respiratory therapists. As with any job, some of the core competencies listed below are part and parcel of a college education while others are learned on the job.
Pulmonary Function Technology
Comprehend basic spirometry plus coaching, counseling, test result analysis, and remediation.
Properly evaluate pulmonary function test results such as plethysmography, diffusion capacity, esophageal pressure, metabolic testing, and diaphragm stimulation.
Evaluate and contrast respiratory sleep disorders.
Comprehend various aspects of invasive and noninvasive diagnostic procedures such as:
- Mechanical ventilation
- Medical gas therapy
- Airway management
- Airway clearance therapy
- Aerosol therapy
- Humidity therapy
- Lung expansion therapy
Understanding and management of the anatomy, diagnosis, etiology, pathophysiology, and treatment of cardiopulmonary diseases and associated care plans.
Assessing patient wellness through integrative process (social, emotional, spiritual needs) and process-based steps like patient charting, patient satisfaction, and clinical guidelines.
Critical Care and Emergency Care
Perform basic life support, advanced cardiovascular life support, and pediatric life support as needed.
Provide airway management ventilator life support services.
Have working knowledge of noninvasive and invasive mechanical ventilators.
Collaborate and communicate effectively with team members and cross-functional stakeholders.
Deep understanding of healthcare regulatory requirements.
Possess a set of exceptional written and oral communication skills.
What are the Types of Respiratory Therapy Degrees?
The types of respiratory therapy degree programs include the following list of options for students to consider pursing:
- AAS – Associate in Applied Science
- AS – Associate of Science
- BS – Bachelor of Science
- MS – Master of Science
The most popular college degree track for students to pursue is the associated degree track. In fact, the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care estimates 8 of 10 degrees awarded are for the AS or AAS programs from accredited colleges and universities. Thus leaving the bachelor and master degree tracks to account for less than 20% of the remaining degrees conferred to respiratory therapists.
Associate Degrees in Respiratory Therapy
A 2-year degree program in respiratory therapy will likely lead a student to an Associate of Science or Associate in Applied Science. A typical associate degree program will split academic requirements with active learning opportunities. The academic piece will often include anatomy, principles of respiratory science, physiology, therapy procedures while active learning includes labs and clinical rotations. Upon earning an associate’s degree from an accredited college or university, students can sit for the CRT and RRT exams.
Bachelor Degrees in Respiratory Therapy
A bachelor’s degree in RT can either be a 2-year extension from an associate’s degree or 4-year inclusive program. The degree types conferred to these students will most likely be the BSRC or BSRT. Both the Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Care and the Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Therapy will have a year of general education and three years of professional core curriculum, followed by a set of clinical rotations.
Master Degrees in Respiratory Therapy
While limited, the number of accredited schools offering master’s degree in RT prepare professionals to become teachers, researchers, subject matter experts, and/or practitioners in respiratory therapy. The intensive curriculum is designed to posture graduates for career advancement in variety of healthcare tracks.
Specialized Fields in Respiratory Therapy
Polysomnography & Sleep Disorder Specialist – With the rapid advances in sleep care, the polysomnographic area of specialization has grown substantively. The respiratory therapists working in the dynamic sleep field will often work with sleep laboratories working evenings when patients can be observed sleeping. An RT within the sleep disorder field will hold a RRT, CRT, or RPSGT credential.
Case Management – A RT case manager specializes in helping patients successfully transition from a hospital to a home care situation. Think of case managers as a specialized project manager tasked to address all aspects of the patient’s transition from logistics to emotional care to service management.
Pulmonary Diagnostics – A pulmonary function specialist work in a hospital or physician’s office to conduct and analyze patient lung health. The field of pulmonary diagnostics will often require a specialized degree such as a CRT, RRT, CPFT, and/or RPFT.
Long-Term Care & Home Care – Patients suffering from diseases such as emphysema will often have respiratory specialized assigned to come to their home. Although these specialized RT’s may work for a respiratory hospital or similar healthcare provider, they have home care equipment making them quite mobile.
Neonatal-Pediatrics – A neonatal-pediatric respiratory therapist will work in a general hospital’s neonatal care division or a children’s hospital to assess and treat infants and young children with breathing disorders. These specialist will possess credentials that may include AE-C, NPS, CRT, and/or RRT.
Surface and Air Transportation – The purpose of a surface and air transportation RT is to safely and successfully move patients to designated critical care units via medical helicopters and ambulances. A surface and air transportation respiratory therapist will work with EMT’s, doctors, and nurses to properly attend to patients in critical situations.
RT Manager or Supervisor – Virtually every respiratory care department has an on-site team leader or manager and qualified RT’s are often the first tabbed to step into these roles. Job responsibilities include everything from staffing to budget management to healthcare policy administration.
Pulmonary Rehabilitation – The field of pulmonary rehab is focused on helping patients with a chronic lung disease such as chronic bronchitis, asthma, pulmonary fibrosis, and/or emphysema to best manage and cope with their disease(s). Treatment plans may include a combination of education and exercise depending on the care plan provided. Pulmonary rehab RT’s will hold a RRT, CRT, and/or AE-C credential.
Critical Care – A critical care respiratory therapist thrive within a high-demand setting like an intensive care unit. A critical care RT will often be tasked to work with seriously ill patients using leading-edge technology. The bulk of critical care respiratory therapists will have earned an advanced level RRT credential.
Additional Resources for Respiratory Therapists
Below you will find a list of national resources for respiratory therapists and the RT profession. From specialty organizations like asthma educators to respiratory therapist associations, there are many support systems in place to help professional RT’s at every step of their career.
- American Association for Respiratory Care
- National Board for Respiratory Care
- International Association for Respiratory Therapists
- American Lung Association
- American Medical Association
- American Public Health Association
- Association of Asthma Educators
- Association of Schools of Allied Health Professions
Job Growth & Career Outlook
The RT field is anticipated to grow at a 12% clip through 2024 with 14,900 new jobs being created during this time frame due to an aging population coupled with professionals capable of assisting the growing number of health issues yet to come. The average national income for a Respiratory Therapist is $58,670 per year which translates to $28.21 per hour. The industries with the highest pay for Respiratory Therapists include outpatient care centers followed by colleges & universities and local government agencies. The top 5 paying states for a respiratory therapist include: California, Nevada, New Jersey, Alaska, and New York.