What Do Respiratory Care Therapists Do?

Respiratory Therapists (RTs) are specially trained healthcare professionals. The primary job description of an RT is to evaluate, treat and care for patients with breathing or other disorders. Because this is a fairly broad set of responsibilities, RTs tend to havesome of the most diverse work days of any health professional. On any given shift, an RT can be found:
  • Interviewing patients, performing limited physical exams and conducting diagnostic tests to determine the extent of a patient's respiratory disease
  • Consulting with physicians to determine the best course of treatment for a patient
  • Providing aerosol breathing treatments, chest physiotherapy and other treatment options
  • Analyzing blood samples, chest x-rays and other laboratory tests to evaluate treatment
  • Managing artificial airways and ventilators for patients who are not able to breathe sufficiently on their own
  • Providing education on pulmonary disease processes and prevention
  • Performing many other tasks to help their patients breathe easier, both in the hospital and out.
In 2001, the American Society of Anesthesiologists issued a statement in support of the use of respiratory therapists to improve patient outcomes.


Where Do Respiratory Therapists Work?

In 2001, the American Society of Anesthesiologists issued a statement in support of the use of respiratory therapists to improve patient outcomes.

The kind of places an RT can work is as varied as the job description. Most therapists work in the hospital setting. In these facilities, RTs work on general medical floors to provide therapy to the chronically ill, in intensive care units managing ventilators, in emergency rooms giving lifesaving therapy to asthma, trauma and many other patients, working with high-risk deliveries with premature babies, on rapid response teams who try to prevent serious illness from becoming critical, and on "code teams" for resuscitating patients in dire straits. RTs treat patients of all ages, from neonates whose lungs have not yet developed enough to patients of advanced age with chronic disease. 

There are many opportunities outside the hospital for RTs as well. Many home medical equipment companies staff RTs to set up and monitor equipment for patients needing long-term oxygen therapy and nebulizer treatment, as well as to instruct these patients on proper use and safety with the equipment. Doctors' offices employ RTs to develop and run smoking cessation and asthma education programs. Therapists also work in specialized facilities such as sleep labs, pulmonary function and rehabilitiation centers and emergency transport programs.

In short, wherever there are people with breathing troubles, an RT is usually not far away.


What is the Job Outlook for Respiratory Therapists Like?

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics expects jobs for RTs to grow at a faster than average rate over the next decade, especially in hospitals. Wages are expected to increase as well. Currently, the average annual salary for an experienced RT is around $56,000. RTs can expect to start at an average annual salary of over $41,000, according to the American Association for Respiratory Care. 

RTs also have many advancement opportunities, from becoming department managers and entering other hospital management positions to becoming clinical instructors and education program directors. Some RTs put their skills and experience to use with equipment and drug manufacturers. Still others move into case management or research. You could even be your own boss and start your own home care or diagnostic company.


How Do I Become a Respiratory Therapist?

The first step is to enroll in a CoARC-accredited respiratory care program. Michigan is home to several such programs. After graduating with a minimum of an Associate's degree, you must take the CRT exam from the National Board of Respiratory Care. Successfully passing this exam qualifies you for a Michigan licence to practice respiratory care. Most therapists eventually obtain the RRT credential (which requires two additional exams). Some go on to obtain advanced credentials in neonatal/pediatric care or pulmonary function testing. 


Interested in Learning More?

There are many sites where you can learn about careers in respiratory therapy and what RTs do. We suggest the following: