Respiratory Therapy

Respiratory therapists care for people who suffer from breathing problems. Their patients' ages and ailments vary dramatically, so respiratory therapists are trained to handle a wide range of breathing difficulties, including both chronic and emergency situations that may affect anyone from premature infants to the elderly. Such work requires a high degree of compassion and exacting attention to detail, but it also demands a sophisticated knowledge base.

Respiratory therapy programs

An education in respiratory therapy can prepare future professionals for scenarios they might encounter during a day on the job. Aspiring respiratory therapists can expect to be instructed in the following:

  • How to interview and examine patients
  • How to conduct diagnostic tests, such as measuring lung capacity
  • A variety of treatment methods, including chest physiotherapy and aerosol medications
  • Teaching patients how to use treatments
  • Supervision of respiratory technicians, as well as interpretation of a technician's findings

Respiratory therapy degree programs

Respiratory therapists typically hold associate degrees, but some employers may prefer to hire candidates with bachelor's degrees. Respiratory therapy programs are common throughout the American collegiate system; institutions ranging from four-year universities to vocational schools and the Armed Forces all offer specialized education and training to students pursuing careers as respiratory therapists.

Respiratory therapy programs are predictably science-heavy and offer courses like:

  • Human anatomy and physiology
  • Microbiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Mathematics

Some respiratory therapy schools may also require ancillary courses that deal with topics such as ethics or adult critical care. Programs offer dedicated lab time that allows students to gain ample experience in a clinical setting while earning course credits they can apply towards their degrees.

Training to become a respiratory therapist

All states except Alaska require practicing respiratory therapists to be licensed. The path to licensure varies by state but, in general terms, involves passing a state or professional certification exam.

Students considering respiratory therapy programs may also be curious about similar professional options. Here are a few related fields with similar educational requirements. All salary figures are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and reflect 2014 data:

  • Athletic trainers - bachelor's degree, salary: $45,730 mean annual pay
  • Registered nurses - associate degree, salary: $69,790 mean annual pay
  • Radiation therapists: associate degree, salary: $83,710 mean annual pay
  • Dental hygienists: associate degree, salary: $71,970 mean annual pay

In addition, respiratory therapists in some hospitals specialize in a specific area of practice, such as diagnosing breathing problems for people who suffer from sleep apnea, or providing counsel to people who wish to quit smoking.

Career outlook

CareerTotal EmploymentProjected Job Growth Rate
Respiratory Therapists128,25023.4%
Respiratory Therapy Technicians9,600-56.3%
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects employment of respiratory therapists to increase by 19% between 2012 and 2022, a figure that sits comfortably above the national average for any occupation. The BLS also notes that job prospects favor those who are willing to travel to find work. Some areas already have a surfeit of respiratory therapists, while others, often rural, are particularly in need of qualified applicants.

As of May 2014, respiratory therapists earned a mean annual wage of $58,490, and those who represented the top ten percent of earners made just shy of $80,000. California, Nevada, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Alaska topped the BLS' list of top-paying states for this occupation.

Respiratory Therapist Career Path

A job as a respiratory therapist can offer a personally rewarding career in a well-paying and well-respected industry, but without the costly and time-consuming commitments to education that are so typical of other jobs in the health care field.

Respiratory therapy is the science of treating breathing difficulties. Respiratory therapists work with a broad swath of patients who all experience breathing problems of some kind, from neonates with underdeveloped lungs to adults with chronic asthma.

How to become a respiratory therapist

The typical path towards becoming a respiratory therapist is to obtain your associate degree from an accredited program, pass a certification exam and, finally, get a license to practice. This can vary by state, so be sure to check with your state board of respiratory care before settling on a program.

Respiratory therapy programs combine classroom time with dedicated lab hours, during which students can practice their new-found skills in a realistic clinical setting. Classes you might encounter while studying to become a respiratory therapist include:

  • Human anatomy and physiology
  • Therapeutic and diagnostic procedures
  • Microbiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Chemistry
  • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)

After you've earned your degree, you become eligible to take the Therapist Multiple-Choice Examination (TMC), which, if passed, results in respiratory therapy certification. The TMC has two cut scores: if a test-taker achieves the lower score, he earns CRT (Certified Respiratory Therapist) certification; if he achieves the higher cut score, he can go on to take the Clinical Simulation Examination, a passing score of which earns its taker the RRT (Registered Respiratory Therapist) certification. The RRT is the ultimate educational attainment in the field of respiratory therapy.

Program requirements/prerequisites

Respiratory therapists should be compassionate, detail-oriented and competent in life sciences. Patients who suffer from breathing disorders are likely to be frustrated and distraught, so respiratory therapists need to be able to offer emotional support. They should also possess great attention to detail. The ability to stay focused at all times becomes paramount when you are responsible for a patient's treatments and medications. Finally, an understanding of anatomy, physiology and related sciences ensures basic workplace problem-solving skills, such as evaluating patients' symptoms.

Work environment

Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals, but some may provide in-home care or work in nursing facilities. They are involved at every level of patient care:

  • Examining patients
  • Consulting with physicians to develop treatment plans
  • Conducting diagnostic tests, such as measuring lung capacity
  • Administering treatment methods, such as chest physiotherapy or aerosol medications
  • Supervising respiratory therapy technicians

As of May 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that there were 119,410 respiratory therapists employed in the United States. The BLS expects that number to grow substantially in the coming years. In fact, between 2012 and 2022, employment of respiratory therapists is projected to increase by 19%, the BLS says. That level of growth far outpaces the national average for any occupation, making job prospects for aspiring respiratory therapists extremely good.

The mean annual wage for this occupation was $58,490 in 2014, the BLS reports, with the lowest 10% still earning a healthy $41,380 and the top 10% of earners making just over $78,000.

Respiratory Therapy Careers

What can be expected from a career in respiratory therapy?

Respiratory therapists, more commonly referred to within the medical community as RTs, very often work with the elderly who suffer from various cardiopulmonary diseases. However, RTs may just as often work with premature newborns that have lungs that aren’t yet fully developed. A career in respiratory therapy may also involve working in very urgent situations where a patient’s life quite literally hangs in the balance.

Although these highly skilled medical professionals work in dramatically varied roles, there is always a common goal: Facilitate breathing and restore oxygen flow through the bloodstream to the vital organs. In less dire situations this may be done as part of a maintenance schedule for asthma and emphysema sufferers. In medical emergencies respiratory therapists take great measures to eliminate or reduce the occurrence of organ or brain damage resulting from a restricted flow of oxygen. This can save a life and prevent a patient from living out their life in a vegetative state.

Who may benefit from the services of respiratory therapists?

Respiratory therapist careers will upon RTs to work with patients of all kinds, from those with cardiopulmonary diseases to those who have suffered injuries or who may be comatose and in need of mechanical respiratory intervention with a ventilator.

Respiratory therapists are very familiar to individuals who suffer from cardiopulmonary diseases such as emphysema or those who are chronically asthmatic. However, the widely varying types of patients treated by RTs would also include those who may have suffered a stroke or heart attach.

The work performed by respiratory therapists is not limited to only disease treatment or responding to advanced cardiopulmonary emergencies. Depending on the work environment, these professionals may just as frequently be called upon to help restore or facilitate breathing to drowning victims or those who are suffering from shock as a result of an accident or severe injury.

Those interested in how to become a respiratory therapist should note that this career is well suited to individuals with a gentle nature, but a strong sense of duty and an intense sense of urgency as part of their professional disposition.

What are the responsibilities unique to respiratory therapists?

Respiratory therapists often work under the direct supervision of a physician; however, the specialized training RTs have received and the unique skill set they have mastered put them in a position to assume a tremendous level of responsibility. Clinical components of respiratory therapy programs will address the various RT responsibilities that include:

  • Patient evaluation, diagnosis, examination
  • Administering aerosol medications
  • Administering chest physiotherapy
  • Measuring oxygen, carbon dioxide levels in blood
  • Analyzing blood pH levels
  • Administering ventilator therapy
  • Maintaining resident equipment such as ventilators

What type of medical situation would require the intervention of respiratory therapists?

Because breathing is such a fundamental component to life, there is literally no branch of medicine or medical specialty that doesn’t call upon the services of respiratory therapists at some point. This has led to a whole host of respiratory therapist careers that are themselves highly specialized as they serve specific needs for specific segments of society. The specific types of patients who are assisted by respiratory therapists include:

  • Neonates
  • Trauma patients
  • Accident victims
  • Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) patients
  • Infant Respiratory Distress Syndrome (IRDS) patients
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) patients
  • Sufferers of sleep disorders (sleep apnea)
  • Severe food and bee sting allergy sufferers
  • Lung disease sufferers

Respiratory Therapy Certification

Respiratory therapists care for patients who suffer from breathing difficulties. Employed primarily in hospitals (but occasionally working in nursing facilities or as in-home care providers), respiratory therapists work closely with patients and their primary physicians to address breathing disorders that run that gamut from underdeveloped lungs to asthma, emphysema and emergency-induced respiratory problems.

Duties for respiratory therapists include, but are not necessarily limited to the following:

  • Evaluate patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders
  • Develop treatment plans alongside physicians
  • Measure lung capacity as well as Oxygen/CO2 levels present in blood
  • Supervise respiratory therapy technicians
  • Administer treatment methods such as chest physiotherapy and aerosol medications

All US states except Alaska require respiratory therapists to be licensed. Many employers also look for certification when hiring; while not always legally mandated, respiratory therapy certification signals to employers that a job applicant has achieved the highest educational standard in his or her desired field.

The National Board for Respiratory Certification (NBRC) offers two levels of certification: the CRT (Certified Respiratory Therapist) and the more advanced RRT (Registered Respiratory Therapist). Both types of certification are accompanied by prerequisites and exams.

Effective January 2015, NBRC administers the Therapist Multiple-Choice Examination (TMC) to determine CRT certification. This entry-level exam is designed to measure the skills and knowledge base of aspiring respiratory therapists, as well as determine eligibility for the Clinical Simulation Examination. The TMC features two cut scores: a student who achieves the lower cut score earns the CRT credential, but if the higher score is reached, that student will be awarded CRT status as well as eligibility to take the clinical exam. If an individual also passes the Clinical Simulation Examination, he or she is awarded the RRT credential.

Candidates have three hours to complete the TMC, whose 160 multiple-choice questions cover three subject areas: patient data evaluations and recommendations, troubleshooting and quality control of equipment and infection control, and initiation and modification of interventions. The Clinical Simulation Examination consists of just 22 problems spread over a maximum of four hours and is designed to simulate the realistic clinical practice of respiratory care.

Educational requirements

In order to apply for respiratory therapy certification, an individual must either have graduated from and earned a minimum of an associate degree from an accredited respiratory therapy program, or be enrolled in a bachelor's degree program for respiratory care. The NBRC notes, however, that the second route of admission will only be offered through the 2015 calendar year, after which time all applicants must hold a degree in respiratory therapy to be eligible for the TMC exam.

Respiratory therapy programs combine classroom study hours with clinical experience. The initial courses cover a broad range of science subjects such as microbiology, pharmacology, human anatomy and physiology, chemistry and physics, followed by more specialized topics like therapeutic and diagnostic procedures, respiratory therapy equipment and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that while respiratory therapists need at least an associate degree, some hospitals prefer to hire applicants who hold bachelor's degrees. Research your area to determine the level of demand for respiratory therapists; it varies substantially from place to place, and having a four-year degree can give you an advantage in an already-crowded sea of candidates.

Benefits of respiratory therapy certification

Certification may be required in order to obtain a license in your state. Some states don't require a CRT or RRT in order to practice respiratory therapy, but employers across the country recognize the certification as the gold standard of educational achievement in this field. Regardless of your location, obtaining respiratory therapy certification can make you a better-prepared job applicant.

Respiratory Therapy Degrees

What type of degree is required to become a respiratory therapist?

Respiratory therapist must obtain a minimum of an associate’s degree but many baccalaureate degrees are now available and new programs are continually starting. The respiratory therapy associate’s degree programs typically take two years to complete and the bachelor’s programs take four years. There are accelerated programs available. Most RT programs are available at community colleges.

Learn more about repiratory therapy schools.

Do respiratory therapy programs have to be accredited?

In order for students to be eligible for the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) exams, they must graduate with a minimum of an associate’s degree from an accredited program. Without accreditation, the school cannot graduate respiratory therapists. Programs are accredited through the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) and facilitated by the Committee on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC). In order for programs to become accredited they must submit an application, submit self study documents, and have the accrediting body visit and approve their program. The accreditation status is reviewed every three to ten years.

What is the cost of tuition for most respiratory therapist programs?

The cost of a program is dependent upon the institution and location. Schools can range from $8,000 to $50,000 for a two-year degree, typically costing somewhere in the middle. It depends largely on whether the school chosen is public or private.

Are there typically prerequisites for entry into a respiratory therapist program?

Most schools require chemistry and algebra courses to be complete prior to enrolling in a respiratory therapy program but this can vary based on the specific school.

What kinds of courses are included in a respiratory therapist program?

  • Cardiopulmonary anatomy and physiology
  • Physics
  • Pharmacology
  • Therapeutics
  • Mechanical ventilation
  • Beginning and advanced patient assessment
  • Pediatrics and neonatology
  • Cardiopulmonary diseases
  • Clinical (internships in hospitals)

Are internships required to graduate from these programs?

Typically programs require clinical rotations in various areas of the hospitals such as pulmonary function labs, critical care, emergency room, adult, pediatric and neonatal care. It is typical for a program to require over 1,000 clinical hours prior to graduation.

Learn more about repiratory therapy salary.

How many students are admitted into respiratory therapy programs typically?

Each school is different but a typical program admits approximately 20 students and may have 16 who graduate. Some RT programs have a yearlong waiting list due to keeping the student/teacher ratio low and other programs don’t have a waiting list.

What is the typical make up of students in a respiratory therapist program?

The types of students in respiratory therapy programs can run the gamut. These programs consist of new high school graduates, displaced workers, graduates from other types of degrees who cannot find work in their field, and students who want to use this profession as a stepping stone to get into another field in health care like nursing, radiography, physician assistant or even a doctor. Students who initially want to use the field as a stepping stone oftentimes decide to stay in respiratory therapy when they learn how exciting and rewarding it can be to take care of critically ill patients and be part of an emergency life saving team.

Respiratory Therapy Job Specifics

Are there certain times of the year that respiratory therapists are busier than others?

The busy season for respiratory therapists is typically autumn and winter since that is when asthma and flu seasons begin. Autumn and winter are also times when school is in session and the windows and doors are closed with heaters turned on. This causes rooms to become incubators for germs.

Learn more about repiratory therapy schools.

How do RTs handle terminally ill or other patients who have “do not resuscitate” orders?

Respiratory therapists often work with terminally ill patients and those who are on ventilators to help with breathing. RTs are limited in end of life care by "do not resuscitate" (DNR) orders. For patients who do not have a DNR order, everything must be done to help that patient breathe. There can be gray area when a patient has a partial DNR order; for instance, when the patient requests they not be given CRP but can have drugs for treatment, or when the patient allows CPR and drugs but requests no intubation. This means the respiratory therapist must mechanically ventilate with a bag mask rather than intubation by placing an endotracheal tube into the patient. Obviously, these orders can be very confusing for patients and often are not correctly explained by physicians prior to being instituted. However, the patient’s family members or the powers of attorney are allowed to make decisions for the patient at their time of need. These types of situations are traditionally handled by physicians, but families can seek education from the respiratory therapists who are helping their loved one.

Find more information regarding the respiratory therapy career path.

What are the main responsibilities of a respiratory therapist?

  • Administering mechanical ventilation by setting up and adjusting life support machines that breathe for patients when they cannot breathe for themselves.
  • Maintaining a patient’s airway by placing a tube in their lungs if they stop breathing, which is called intubation, bagging with an ambu bag, and administering aerosol therapy to improve airway patency.
  • Administering nebulizers with a bronchodilator may be used to treat patients with COPD, bronchitis, and pneumonia.
  • Administering Metered Dose Inhalers (MDI) to treat patients with COPD and bronchitis.
  • Administering Chest Physiotherapy (CPT), which involves chest percussion and postural drainage to certain areas of the chest. This can be done manually or with a pneumatic percussor. CPT may be used in the treatment of pneumonia or cystic fibrosis to mobilizes secretions that are retained in the lung.
  • Administering Incentive Spirometry (IS), which is also referred to as sustained maximal inspiration (SMI), and is important for post surgical patients to ensure the patient does deep breathing and coughing techniques for lung expansion.
  • Administering Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) and Bi-Level Positive Airway Pressure (BIPAP) are used for Obstructive Sleep Apnea to keep the airway open during sleep.
  • Administering Positive Expiratory Pressure (PEP) Therapy, which is a breathing treatment that applies positive pressure during exhalation to keep the airway open. This therapy also helps with secretion removal or with collapsed areas of the lung.
  • Administering Oxygen Therapy involves several different types of devices that are used to keep the patient’s oxygen saturation up so that their cardiopulmonary system can work more efficiently.
  • Conduct arterial blood gas analysis, which involves drawing blood from an artery and interpreting the results.
  • Perform Pulmonary Function Tests either in a pulmonary function lab or at the bedside of a patient in the hospital. 
  • Perform weaning parameters on patients who are on mechanical ventilation to evaluate whether they are ready to be removed from the ventilator.
  • Serve as a 1st responder on rapid response teams.

What are the various employment settings for respiratory therapists?

  • Hospitals
    Respiratory therapists generally rotate to various units of the hospital such as the emergency room, adult intensive care unit (ICU), neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), pediatric intensive care unit (PICU), post anesthesia intensive care units (PACU), coronary care unit (CCU), the general floors, and the hospice units. Therefore, it is important for RTs to remain versatile. Depending on the size of the facility, respiratory therapists may be able to stay in a specialty unit such as neonatal or pediatrics. 
  • Helicopter transport units and ambulances
    With additional training, respiratory therapists who work in a large facility may become a member of the air/land transport team. Depending on the facility and need, patients may be picked up at outlying facilities or transported to them. For example, neonates who require vent management may be transported from a smaller hospital to a larger one where there is a NICU. 
  • Pulmonologists’ offices
    Respiratory therapists at pulmonologists’ offices may perform pulmonary function tests, check resting/exercise pulse oximeter, obtain arterial blood gases, and educate patients. Currently RTs in the office setting are not reimbursable by insurance companies. However, there is legislation in Congress to allow for reimbursement
  • Sleep Laboratories
    Respiratory therapists are involved in setting up of sleep testing, monitoring patients, scoring sleep studies, and providing patients with necessary education on their disease or condition. Obstructive sleep apnea is one of the more common sleep disorders an RT works with.
  • Home Care
    RTs play an important role in the home care of patients in providing education of their disease process, medications, and modes of therapy. This may involve the education of caretakers with home ventilator patients from infants to geriatric patients.
  • Cardio/Pulmonary Rehabilitation
    Experienced RTs with an advanced degree can work with respiratory and cardiac patients to help them improve their endurance and quality of life through exercise. Cardio and Pulmonary rehabilitation is typically located in a hospital setting but some are located in physical therapy practices.
  • Pulmonary Diagnostics
    Respiratory therapists can perform pulmonary function diagnostic testing to help determine the type and extent of respiratory diseases. Typically these departments are located within hospital settings.
  • Travel companies
    Contractual travel companies hire experienced respiratory therapists for a variety of facilities nationwide due to there being shortages for these professionals. The contracts may vary from 12 to 24 weeks or longer. Each contractual company is different so the need for self-education is a must.
  • Sales representatives
    Experienced RTs with an advanced degree can become sales representatives for pharmaceutical companies or medical equipment companies.
  • Education
    Respiratory Therapists can work as educators in colleges and clinical settings.
  • Hyperbaric Chambers
    Some RTs work in hyperbaric chambers with individuals who need hyperbaric oxygen therapy as mentioned previously.

Respiratory Therapy Questions

How are lung and breathing disorders diagnosed?

While it is not the job of the RT to diagnose patients, after an individual works in this profession long enough, they develop this skill. Typically a respiratory therapist uses their stethoscope to determine what the problem is based on how they are breathing. How the patients’ lungs sound can provide very useful information. Asking a variety of questions and reviewing other test results like x-rays, CTs, and EKGs is also helpful. The doctor is the expert who is able to actually diagnose even when an RT has a pretty good idea of what the problem is.

How do RTs handle Code Blues?

For Code Blue emergency situations, a respiratory therapist initially makes sure the patient is breathing. If the patient isn’t breathing or gasping for air, the RT uses an Ambu-bag and mask to assist the patient or breath for him. Typically an RT assistant or nurse will then manage the Ambu-bag while the RT opens the airway box and set up for intubation. Then, the RT sets up a ventilator. Also at a code blue an RT may do an ABG as appropriate, and an EKG at some point. Along with these skills, the RT also works with the RN and physician in trying to figure out what is wrong with the patient and how to effectively resolve it.

Learn more about repiratory therapy schools.

How are ventilators managed?

Patients are put on ventilators for a number of reasons. Sometimes patients are put on ventilators for short term, such as in post-op heart patients, and other times patients are put on ventilators for long- term periods. Respiratory therapists setup ventilators based on physician’s orders and are responsible for making sure the ventilator is in sync with the patient’s breathing. The RT is responsible for checking the ventilator to ensure there are no changes with the patient or the machine. The ventilator should be working with the patient rather than the other way around. In the Intensive Care Unit, ventilators are typically checked every two to three hours. Respiratory therapists also participate in patient care plans and make adjustments accordingly in collaboration with the physician. The goal is to wean the patient as quickly as possible, but not before the underlying condition that led to the ventilator is resolved. With some patients this can be easy, but for others (especially COPD patients) this can be very tricky.

Ventilator care in the home is very involved due to educating the patient, family, caregiver, and nurses appropriately. There are several pieces of equipment that require education for the patient and caregiver. The patient and family or caregivers must be familiarized with every piece of equipment and taught how to suction, and how to identify a crisis situation.

What are the main types of medical equipment used in this field?

  • Intubation equipment such as a laryngoscope and bag valve mask.
  • Endotracheal tubes (ET tubes) which are placed in the airway (trachea) so breathing can be assisted.
  • Tracheostomy tubes which are placed in the trachea via an incision made below the vocal cords. This tube provides a connection for a ventilator and a way of suctioning the airway for long term care patients.
  • CPAP/Bilevel therapy provides one or two levels of pressure to maintain the patient’s airway.
  • Nebulizer therapy is the most commonly ordered treatment for pulmonary diseases.
  • Ventilators provide life-sustaining therapy that may be short or long term.
  • Suction catheters are typically set up at the patient’s bedside to allow RTs to suction secretions from the lungs and mouth.
  • Arterial blood gas kits include a heparinized syringe and needle used for puncturing the artery. The arterial blood that is obtained reflects the condition of the lungs by measuring oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
  • Pulse Oximeters are devices that measure the saturation of oxygen in the blood (hemoglobin).
  • Capnometers are devices that detect the amount of carbon dioxide in exhaled air. It is used for making sure the endotube is in the trachea rather than the stomach and can also be used continuously with mechanical ventilation to ensure that the patient is adequately exchanging air

What sort of questions are patients asked when they’re being “interviewed” about their symptoms?

When a patient comes in with breathing issues, there are a series of questions the respiratory therapist asks them to better understand what is going on. Some of these questions include:

  • Are you short of breath (although this may be obvious)
  • How long have you felt this way?
  • Have you had a cold?
  • Have you been coughing anything up?
  • Do you have chest pain? If so, is it constant (sign of cardiac issues) or do you just feel it with deep inhalation (sign of respiratory issues)?
  • If you have chest pain, on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the worse pain you have ever experienced, how would you rate your pain?
  • Have you ever felt like this before?

Respiratory Therapy Salary

What are the hours and pay in the field?

CareerAnnual Mean WageBottom 10% Annual WageTop 10% Annual Wage
Respiratory Therapists$61,810$43,120$83,030
Respiratory Therapy Technicians$50,900$30,990$73,330
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

Respiratory therapists (RTs) who work at hospitals typically work eight and twelve hour shifts, every other weekend and rotating holidays. Some hospitals have RTs work 12-hour shifts only three days per week. There may also be opportunities for overtime work. Pulmonary rehabilitation, pulmonary diagnostics and pulmonologists' offices are typically open 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday with weekends and holidays off. Learn more about respiratory therapy schools.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that the mean annual wage for respiratory therapists, as of May 2014, was $58,490, which is higher than the mean annual wages for all occupations combined in the U.S. -- $47,230. Salaries for RTs can range from $41,380 or less for the bottom 10 percent of professionals to $78,230 or higher for the top 10 percent. This equates to about $19.89 to $37.61 per hour. States with the highest wages for respiratory therapists include California, Nevada, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Alaska, shows the BLS.

Is this a high demand profession?

According to data from the BLS, jobs for respiratory therapists should increase by 19 percent from 2012 to 2022. This faster-than-average job growth could result in 22,700 new positions becoming available during this time. One significant factor for this growth is an aging baby boomer population in need of more services. They may need treatment for diseases that include chronic bronchitis, emphysema and pneumonia, any of which can cause damage to the lungs or affect overall lung function.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States and continues to be on the rise. Baby boomers who have smoked for many years oftentimes are eventually diagnosed with COPD. Also, while early diagnosis and education of asthma make it easier to control, asthma rates continue to increase. This increase is due in part to children being born to young, impoverished mothers who are in environments that contain many allergens. Children without proper health care have a higher chance of developing asthma. With these statistics, more respiratory therapists will be needed to help educate and prevent, as well as treat COPD.

What are the advantages of a job in this field?

One of the greatest advantages is that, as a respiratory therapist, you are the expert when it comes to the lungs. Ideally, any time there is a patient who is having trouble breathing, the RT is the first person called. Whether you are helping save the life of a heart attack patient who stopped breathing or simply educating an asthmatic, the sense of reward in making a difference in someone's life is a wonderful feeling.

Learn more about respiratory therapy certification.

Another exciting aspect of the job is working as part of a team to try to figure out how to help patients in need. While the medical field is based on science, trying to figure out what is wrong with patients and how to help them is an art.

What challenges exist with a job in this field?

The job of a respiratory therapist can be stressful since these individuals can deal with life and death situations daily. However, helping people in these high-stress situations can also be very rewarding.

Another challenge in this field is trying to help people who are not receptive to being helped. There is also the challenge of dealing with an ever-changing health care system where some people come to the hospital because it's free and other people will avoid coming or staying because they can't afford to pay for the services.

What opportunities exist for career advancement as an RT?

There are a variety of opportunities for advancement in the field of respiratory therapy, including education, management of departments, management of home care companies and management of transport teams. There are also hospice opportunities available. In order to advance you typically need further education or certifications. Indeed, the BLS reports that the best opportunities could be available to those willing to travel, as well as those working in rural areas.

Therapists thinking of advancement may also wish to seek certification through the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC), which offers two certifications, including Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) and Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT). Passing an exam is required for either certification, although the latter is the more advanced credential.

Respiratory Therapy School

What specific courses are offered as part of respiratory therapy programs?

Training programs offered by respiratory therapy schools will include some general coursework that would be common of most all medically related technical fields. These courses provide a framework upon which more specialized career oriented training can be built. The basic classes that would be part of an associate’s degree program or the general undergraduate requirements of a bachelor’s program in respiratory care would include:

  • Physiology
  • Pathophysiology
  • Microbiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Human anatomy
  • Physics
  • Mathematics
  • Chemistry

After satisfying general undergraduate requirements, the core training begins. The career-specific training offered by respiratory therapy schools tends to be more clinical and methods based, though it will still be inclusive of didactic coursework. This specialized training would include methods and procedural protocol based instruction that would include:

  • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
  • Therapeutic procedures
  • Diagnostic procedures
  • Cardiac rehabilitation
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation
  • Outpatient care

What is the educational methods component of respiratory therapy training programs?

Respiratory therapy training will also address educational components that are so wonderfully unique to this profession. Because one of the core functions of a respiratory therapist is to educate those who suffer from respiratory issues, a significant portion of RT training focuses on the methods and principals of educating the public on the importance of disease prevention, while working to promote respiratory health. This may take the form of smoking cessation counseling workshops or teaching a parent the proper procedures for responding to a severe asthma attach or allergic reaction.

RT programs will also involve a level of mechanical technical training so as to prepare graduates to perform ventilator/breathing apparatus maintenance and repair. It is not uncommon for administrative training in medical records keeping and office management to also be part of bachelor’s programs specific to respiratory therapy.

What are my degree options as a respiratory therapist?

Respiratory therapy training is offered at the associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s levels. Associate degree programs offer the fastest way to begin practicing and are the minimum requirement for entering the field. In fewer than three years these programs prepare graduates for both the possibility of attaining a bachelor’s degree as well as the ability to fill entry-level positions in hospitals and clinics.

The more common four-year bachelor’s-level respiratory therapy degree programs will be better suited to those interested in a more comprehensive training that better prepares graduates for a greater level of responsibility. Managerial positions and advancement opportunities are more readily available to those who hold a Bachelor of Science in respiratory therapy. Some hospitals and clinics show a strong preference for hiring graduates of master’s programs and will often accept applicants with this degree in lieu of working experience.

The more ambitions graduates of bachelor’s programs may opt to pursue two years of postgraduate study in order to earn the highly regarded Master of Science in respiratory therapy degree. This advanced degree will create boundless opportunities within this field by allowing recipients to work in a more educational capacity, doing research work, or even specializing in public health and community programs designed around promoting good respiratory health.


  1. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/
  2. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
  3. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, Respiratory Therapists, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291126.htm
  4. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Respiratory Therapists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/respiratory-therapists.htm
  5. The National Board for Respiratory Care, RRT Credential, http://nbrc.org/rrt/Pages/default.aspx

Respiratory Therapy Schools