More commonly referred to as RTs, respiratory therapists often work with the elderly suffering from various cardiopulmonary diseases. However, they also work with premature newborns and assist in urgent situations such as heart failure, drowning, or shock when life support is needed.
Although respiratory therapists work in a wide variety of roles, their main objective is always the same – evaluate, treat and care for patients by facilitating breathing and restoring the flow of oxygen to the bloodstream and vital organs. Whether as part of a maintenance schedule for asthma and emphysema sufferers or in a medical emergency, respiratory therapists work to eliminate or reduce organ or brain damage resulting from a lack of oxygen.
This career is well suited to individuals who exhibit compassion, have exceptional communication and listening skills, are mechanically inclined, have the ability to remain calm, and have a strong sense of responsibility and an intense sense of urgency as part of their professional nature.
The majority of respiratory therapists work in various hospital departments, including respiratory care, anesthesiology, emergency medicine and pulmonary medicine. Other respiratory therapists work for diagnostic centers, extended care facilities, ambulance/transport services, as well as medical equipment rental companies. The daily duties of a respiratory therapist typically include the following:
- Provide emergency care including artificial respiration and assistance with cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
- Set up, operate and monitor devices that provide oxygen such as mechanical ventilators, therapeutic gas administration apparatus’, environmental control systems, and aerosol generators
- Monitor patient response to therapy, such as vital signs, arterial blood gases, and blood chemistry changes as well as maintain patient records
- Explain treatment procedures and educate patients about breathing exercises
- Ensure that mechanical equipment is functioning safely and efficiently by inspecting, cleaning, testing, and maintaining respiratory therapy equipment and ordering repairs when needed
Respiratory therapists spend a great deal of time in direct contact with patients and often get to know them quite well over what can be years of therapy. It is important for someone choosing this career field to be a people person. You will be working very closely with colleagues as well as patients and their families.
For respiratory therapists working in hospitals, they typically work either eight or twelve hour shifts, every other weekend, and rotating holidays. The majority of hospitals have 12-hour shifts where RTs work only three days per week. RTs that work in pulmonary rehabilitation, diagnostics, and pulmonologists’ offices typically work a regular Monday through Friday, 8am-5pm schedule with weekends and holidays off. Career advancement for respiratory therapists includes supervisory and managerial positions, or instructor positions in an academic setting.
Education, Training and Certification
You can become a respiratory therapist either by obtaining a two-year associate degree (60 to 90 credit hours) or a four-year baccalaureate degree (120 credit hours) from an accredited school. There are 24 accredited schools in the state of Florida in 29 different locations. Core courses include fundamentals of respiratory therapy, patient assessment, anatomy and physiology, cardiopulmonary pathology, pediatric and neonatal respiratory therapy, pharmacology, physiologic monitoring, and introduction to psychology. Programs also include a clinical rotation that typically requires over 1,000 hours prior to graduation.
In addition to a degree, the state of Florida requires that respiratory therapists obtain a state license. To do so they must first obtain a Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) title from the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). The entry level status CRT exam measures essential knowledge, skills and abilities required to be an entry level respiratory therapist. Consisting of multiple choice questions, the exam covers clinical data, equipment, and therapeutic procedures. This title is a prerequisite for advanced titles including Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) and the Neonatal/Pediatric Respiratory Care Specialist (CRT-NPS or RRT-NPS).
A Certified Respiratory Therapist can perform basic responsibilities such as measure arterial blood gases and administer oxygen therapies and breathing treatments. They cannot manage ventilators or other critical procedures until they pass the subsequent exam to become a Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT). The majority of hospitals are looking to hire RRTs.
Respiratory therapists can be further certified in specialty areas including respiratory care for neonatal, pediatric, adult and geriatric patients. They can also specialize in pulmonary function, education, rehabilitation, home care, asthma education, emergency care, research or management.
Tuition will vary depending on whether you attend a public or private school for training. If you earn a baccalaureate degree in respiratory therapy through a public institution, such as your local community college, expect to pay on average $8,153 per year. A baccalaureate degree in respiratory therapy through a private program will cost between $15,000 and $25,000 per year or more. Books may or may not be included in the tuition fees. Additional expenses will include the CRT certification application fee ($190) and the Florida licensure fee ($165). Find out what options may be available to you for financial aid.
To gain a better understanding of the information that you will be tested on for CRT certification purposes visit the NBRC CRT page for links to a free practice exam as well as their candidate handbook.
For select major cities in Florida the median annual salaries for Certified Respiratory Therapists according to Salary.com fall right around the national average as shown below.
There are a couple of things that you can do to increase your chances of landing a position after you have earned your degree, certification and licensure. Volunteer at a hospital, clinic or similar healthcare environment to gain valuable work experience that you can put on your resume. Even if you are only able to volunteer for a couple of hours a week, this is a great way to observe others in the field and gain experience working with patients outside of your clinical rotations.
In the healthcare field you will regularly encounter and work with patients who may not speak English. Taking classes in a foreign language while working on your degree will make you more marketable and can provide you with the ability to apply for home healthcare jobs working with non-English speakers.
The Occupational Information Network (O*Net) projects the career field of Respiratory Therapist will grow faster than average through 2020. A rate of 20% to 28% is anticipated, which is faster than the average for all other occupations listed on the site.
Some Advice from the Inside
There is information that simply cannot be found on the internet or in a book. It is the valuable insight and advice that can be gained only by talking with someone who has gone through the steps necessary to become and held a position as a Respiratory Therapist.
Michelle Maher MBA, RRT, RPFT, is the Manager of Respiratory Care Services at Mease Countryside and Mease Dunedin Hospital in Safety Harbor, Florida. She also serves as the Chapter 6 Director of the Florida Society for Respiratory Care. When asked to answer “If starting all over again, what would you do to become a successful Respiratory Therapist?” Michelle replied;
“First be sure that you know what respiratory care is and that this is what you are truly interested in. Shadow a therapist in a hospital for a day to see what they actually do. If you don’t like what you see, you won’t be successful or happy and should look into another area of healthcare.
If you do go to school for respiratory therapy and graduate, get your RRT as soon as you pass your CRT. More and more hospitals are getting away from hiring CRTs and will only hire RRTs. Sell yourself at the interview by sharing what your ambitions and goals are and what you have accomplished in the past. What do you have to offer this organization? What separates you from all the others?
I would also say learn as much as you can and never be afraid to ask questions. It is the question that is not asked that hurts in the long run. Be sure to show you are motivated to learn as much as you can.”
For those who do choose this career, Michelle offers up some important advice to remember once you do get the job and start working.
- Be flexible with scheduling. Don’t expect to walk into a day shift position as soon as you graduate. In the beginning most new grads will end up working night shifts to start. Put in your time on nights.
- Offer to do projects separate from your day to day duties and make sure management knows your goals and ambitions
- Volunteer to be on committees
- Do research on your own with respect to patient care as well as how the hospital system works. Clinical knowledge is important for administering quality care but knowing the details of operations of the organization really helps set you apart from others.
- Study, Study, Study!
- Follow other seasoned therapists around every chance you get but be sure to do things the right way and follow policy. Seasoned therapists tend to find short cuts and this is not usually a good thing for new therapists
- Show you like to teach. To be successful you must be willing to share your knowledge and expertise with others such as new therapists, nurses and physicians
- Be confident but not overconfident. No one knows it all so don’t pretend to. The thing that hurts a therapist the most is coming across like a know it all and not be willing to listen to constructive criticism
- Have a positive attitude and always be professional. Set the example for all. Even if others are not acting professionally, it is expected that the new hire displays the values of trust, dignity and respect.
- Be a team player at all times. Never wait to be asked to help – offer help when you are done with your workload. This will show you are a leader rather than a follower.
- Build rapport with other team members especially nurses and be sure to maintain a good rapport with management inside and outside of your department.
- Once you have been in the field a few years don’t be afraid to ask how you can move up the ladder. Ask your manager what it takes to be a leader. Offer to take leadership classes if they are available.
- Strive for success and you will obtain it.
For more information including career opportunities once you have obtained your degree, certification and license, visit the following sites: