Getting Started Healthcare

How to Become a Respiratory Therapist

Written by Kate Lopaze

For patients who struggle with the most essential thing in the world—breathing—respiratory therapists can be literal lifesavers.

The Day-to-Day

Respiratory therapists work directly with patients of all ages to manage chronic respiratory conditions like bronchitis, sleep apnea, asthma, and emphysema. They also work with patients who have had heart attacks, infants who were born prematurely, and other patients who suffer from breathing issues. On an emergency basis, respiratory therapists might also treat victims of shock, heart attacks, or drowning to restart breathing after sudden distress.

Respiratory therapists typically practice under the supervision of physicians, and work with doctors, nurses, and patients to create and execute respiratory treatment plans. Therapists also handle specialized medical equipment like ventilators and artificial airways for patients who can’t breathe on their own. Respiratory therapists also educate patients on long-term care and managing chronic conditions. Most of these therapists (about 75%) work in hospitals, but they can also be found in sleep clinics, patient home care, diagnostic laboratories, emergency care centers, eldercare facilities, and other healthcare centers.

For more on what it’s like to be a respiratory therapist, check out these videos:

  • Be Something Amazing – Respiratory Therapist

  • Walk in My Shoes: Hospital CEO Turns Respiratory Therapist for a Day

  • Life and Breath—A Presentation of the Respiratory Therapy Career

 The Requirements

Respiratory therapists need to have at least an associate’s degree from an accredited respiratory therapy program. Many respiratory therapists also go on to get their bachelor’s or master’s degree in the field. They can get certification via multiple-choice exams offered by The National Board for Respiratory Care—and although this is technically voluntary, at this point 49 states require some form of licensing or certification. Be sure to check your own state to see what’s required of respiratory therapists.

The Skills

The respiratory therapy field calls for a number of special skills and knowledge bases, including:

  • Attention to detail
  • Critical thinking
  • Patient evaluation
  • Anatomy and physiology (especially cardiopulmonary physiology and pathophysiology)
  • Disease management
  • Medical technology

The Pay

Per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for respiratory therapists is $56,730, or $27.27 per hour. According to PayScale, the field has a “very strong” job satisfaction rating among surveyed therapists.

The Outlook

As with so many Allied Health careers, the respiratory therapy field is expanding, and will continue to do so. The BLS expects that the job will grow by at least 12% by 2024, which is faster than average.
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About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.