Respiratory Therapist Career Path

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Respiratory Therapist Career Path

If you’re looking for a career that’s both challenging and rewarding, consider becoming a respiratory therapist. This profession offers many opportunities to help people, and it’s a field that’s in high demand. Here we’ll explore what it takes to become a respiratory therapist, the job duties of this profession, and the potential career path you could follow.

1. What Is a Respiratory Therapist?

Respiratory therapists care for patients through the use of inhalation therapy, ventilation support, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation or CPR. For example, when a patient comes into the hospital because of an asthma attack, a respiratory therapist would be called in to assist with administering treatment such as nebulizers and medications through an inhaler. Some of the other work respiratory therapists do include administering anesthesia and monitoring patients who have undergone surgery, working with newborns and children who need help with breathing, and even coordinating care for patients on ventilators. Respiratory therapists help the nurses manage the equipment that’s used to assist these kinds of patients.

2. Where Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

Respiratory therapy can be applied to any patient population, but most commonly, respiratory therapists work in the following areas:

  • Critical care/intensive care units
  • Pulmonology departments
  • Respiratory care centers
  • Emergency rooms

In an intensive care unit or critical care unit, respiratory therapists assist doctors who are treating patients. They may help administer medications, run tests and monitor the condition of patients. They are responsible for working in a team with doctors to assess each patient’s needs and conduct treatments that are needed to keep the patient alive.

In pulmonology, respiratory therapists take care of patients who have lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cystic fibrosis, pneumonia, and pulmonary embolism. In this department, therapists often work in isolation with patients to keep them stable and run tests.

In a respiratory care center, therapists provide care for patients who have chronic diseases such as asthma or emphysema. They help patients by administering medication through inhalers and nebulizers, performing treatments using a peak flow meter and working on a nebulizer machine, and monitoring the patients’ progress.

In an emergency room, respiratory therapists take care of critically ill or injured patients who need immediate attention. They may help perform CPR on a patient who is not breathing due to cardiac arrest, set up ventilators for patients who have breathing difficulties, and administer medications through an intravenous line.

3. What Does it Take to Become a Respiratory Therapist?

There are certain prerequisites you’ll need in order to pursue this profession. To become an entry-level respiratory therapist, you’ll need to have a bachelor’s degree in a science field such as chemistry or biology. Some colleges and universities offer this program through a two-year associate degree, while other schools may require a four-year bachelor’s degree for entry-level positions.

In addition to the educational requirements you’ll need to meet, employers will also want to see that you’ve gained experience in a clinical setting. You can look for volunteer opportunities that will allow you to gain hands-on experience with patients as well as shadow respiratory therapists in the field to learn more about this profession. While some programs do offer internships, these are not always available, so it may take some searching on your own to find an opportunity.

4. How Much Does a Respiratory Therapist Make?

Respiratory therapists are well compensated for their time and education. As of May 2010, respiratory therapists made an average salary of $57,650 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Of course, the exact amount that you’ll be paid will depend on your employer’s industry as well as geographical location.

On top of the base salary you’ll be paid, respiratory therapists may also qualify for certain benefits. According to the BLS, many employers offer health insurance and retirement plans as well as bonuses and overtime pay. Talented respiratory therapists are often in high demand, so finding employment is not difficult for professionals who have an advanced degree.

The following list of respiratory therapist salaries was derived from, the leading provider of compensation data in the United States :

  • Entry-level – $48,000 to $62,500
  • Mid-level – $60,000 to $76,250
  • Experienced – $70,000 to $90,000

5. What Is the Job Outlook for a Respiratory Therapist?

The job outlook for respiratory therapists in this country is excellent. Between 2010 and 2020, it is expected that this occupation will grow at a rate of 39%, much faster than the average occupation. This increase in jobs indicates a demand for respiratory therapists to work in hospital centers nationwide. In addition to providing care for patients who are critically ill or injured, respiratory therapists can also work in home health care settings, intensive care units, and nursing homes.

The above fields of study all work together to help a patient with a respiratory condition. Because there is such a wide range of career opportunities available, students can consider the following educational paths:

Medical Laboratory Technician – Medical laboratory technicians, collect blood and other samples from patients in order to test for certain diseases. This process aids in the diagnosis of diseases and helps to prescribe certain medications.

Respiratory Therapy Technician – Respiratory therapy technicians have the opportunity to work closely with respiratory therapists, first responders, and other medical professionals as they care for patients who are injured or critically ill. These technicians may also assist with the testing and analysis of clinical samples.

Paramedic – Paramedics work closely with respiratory therapists and other medical professionals to provide emergency care for the critically ill or injured. These professionals are often the first responders to a patient’s home or hospital room, working under the supervision of a physician or nurse anesthesiologist to provide treatment that may include CPR and defibrillation.

Nursing – Nursing is a long-term care option for patients who need constant monitoring and treatment. Nurses provide emotional support for these patients, perform tests and administer medications under the direction of a doctor.

Nursing Assistant – Nursing assistants work closely with nursing staff and physicians to provide many of the same services that nurses do. These professionals typically have on-the-job training with no formal education requirements.

Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) – EMTs work under the supervision of a physician or nurse anesthesiologist to provide basic medical treatment to patients who are injured or critically ill. These professionals may also transport patients to the hospital, showing up before nurses and respiratory therapists have had a chance to properly treat the patient.

Physical Therapy Assistant – Physical therapy assistants work under the direction of a physical therapist to provide patients with therapeutic exercises and massage in order to help them heal after an injury or surgery. These professionals may also feed, dress and move patients in need.

7. How Can I Further My Education?

Aspiring respiratory therapists who want to specialize in a certain area have many options available to them. For example, those who want to become nurses can earn bachelor’s degrees in nursing during four years of study. After the first two years of this program, students will be required to complete a specified number of nursing clinical hours before they can move on to the next level.

In addition, respiratory therapists who want to become respiratory therapists technicians can learn more about these career opportunities by enrolling in a two-year degree program. These programs include classes such as:

Basic Life Support – Students will learn how to respond quickly and efficiently during emergency situations that require CPR and the use of life support equipment, such as an AED (automated external defibrillator).

Neurological Patient Care – Students will learn about the different types of neurological conditions that require patient monitoring in order to help prevent further injury.

Patient Care and Safety – Students will receive training in infection control, fire safety, emergency preparedness, and how to identify potentially dangerous situations when working with patients.

8. What Are the Skills Needed to Become a Respiratory Therapist?

In addition to a caring personality and extensive knowledge of human anatomy, respiratory therapists must possess strong communication skills. Respiratory therapists work closely with patients and medical staff to make sure that their needs are being met. They also have the opportunity to practice critical thinking through testing and analysis of bodily samples in order to provide treatment for various conditions.

Respiratory therapists also have to demonstrate the ability to lift heavy equipment and work in a confined space. In addition, they must be willing to continuously improve their knowledge by attending workshops and seminars throughout their tenure in the field. Finally, respiratory therapists must show respect for confidentiality when handling sensitive patient data.

9. What Are the Pros and Cons of Being a Respiratory Therapist?

Respiratory therapists have a great deal of autonomy when it comes to their daily work. They also have the chance to help patients improve their quality of life through innovative treatment methods. In addition, the respiratory therapist can pursue an array of different specialties as they gain experience in the field.

On the downside, respiratory therapists are subject to extended periods of standing and the physical strain that comes with heavy lifting. They also have a difficult time maintaining a sense of balance between their professional lives and personal lives because they must work so closely with patients in the hospital setting.

10. Best Colleges to Study Respiratory Therapy

According to U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of the top respiratory therapy programs, the following institutions stand out:

  • University of Washington – Seattle Campus (Seattle, WA)
  • The University of Colorado – Colorado Springs (Colorado Springs, CO)
  • The University of Minnesota – Minneapolis/St. Paul Campus (Minneapolis, MN)
  • Prairie View A&M University (Prairie View, TX)
  • Indiana Wesleyan University-College of Health Sciences (Marion, IN)
  • Texas Christian University (Fort Worth, TX)
  • Wayland Baptist University (Plainview, TX)


The respiratory therapist career path is a fulfilling and challenging one. It requires hard work, dedication, and compassion. If you are looking for a career that will make a difference in people’s lives, then this may be the perfect choice for you. We hope you have found this article helpful in your decision-making process.

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