Respiratory Therapists Help Patients with Lung Problems
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Respiratory Therapists Provide Critical Care for Patients

Published on December 7, 2009.

Job Duties

A respiratory therapist is responsible foremost for treating and evaluating the condition of patients who experience heart and lung problems. This often involves direct consultation with physicians and other healthcare professionals in order to establish a treatment plan for each patient. When working directly with patients experiencing respiratory difficulty, a respiratory therapist must also examine and interview patients and determine which diagnostic tests are necessary. A respiratory therapist must also supervise work conducted by colleagues, including respiratory therapy technicians.

Patients treated by a respiratory therapist may be suffering from a wide array of problems. Patients range from premature infants with underdeveloped lungs to elderly patients suffering from lung disease. Other patients might be dealing with the adverse effects of a heart attack, a stroke, shock, or a number of other ailments. When stationed in a hospital, which is where a respiratory therapist most often operates, the range of potential ailments a respiratory therapist encounters widens considerably. Additional duties may include performing chest physiotherapy and clearing a patient's lungs of mucus to permit him or her to breathe more freely. Other tasks include treating patients who rely on life support systems in intensive care units.

Job Skills

It is essential for a practicing respiratory therapist to be able and willing to cooperate with other professionals, such as physicians and respiratory technicians. Respiratory therapist also need to be able to work and communicate with patients who may be in pain or nervous. Computer skills are also beneficial.


In 2008, the median annual salary among respiratory therapists was $52,200. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the lowest 10 percent earned less than $37,920 while the highest 10 percent earned more than $69,800.

Training and Education

In order to qualify for a position as a respiratory therapist at the entry level, a candidate must have earned an associate's degree. A wide variety of institutions offer this degree, including medical schools, the armed forces, colleges, universities, and vocational schools. These programs offer education in chemistry, physics, mathematics, pharmacology, and human anatomy and physiology, among other subjects relevant to success in the field of respiratory therapy. Other coursework includes training in the use of the equipment needed by respiratory therapists, as well as training in patient assessment, medical record keeping, and diagnostic tests and procedures.

Over forty states require licensure before you can practice as respiratory therapist. Individuals have the option of earning a Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) and/or Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) designation, which are given by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). The CRT designation is required of most entry-level position holders, while the RRT designation is often necessary for taking a position at the supervisory level. Graduation from an accredited program is a necessary prerequisite to earning one of these certifications.


In 2008, respiratory therapists held about 103,870 jobs, representing a decrease since 2006. The vast majority of these jobs were located in hospitals' departments of respiratory care, anesthesiology, or pulmonary medicine. Most remaining jobs were held in home healthcare services, nursing care facilities, offices of healthcare practitioners, and consumer-goods rental firms offering respiratory equipment for home use.

Job Outlook

Job opportunities for respiratory therapists are expected to increase. Growth between 2006 and 2016 is projected to be 19 percent, which is significantly faster than average. This growth is spurred by the increasingly elderly population, and a concomitant proliferation of diseases such as emphysema, pneumonia, heart disease, and chronic bronchitis. Most of these job openings are expected to be in hospitals, however the number of respiratory therapists emplo9yed in other settings is growing.

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