A Respiratory Therapist (RT) assists patients who are having trouble breathing for a variety of reasons. These reasons may include chronic respiratory disease, such as asthma or emphysema, underdeveloped lungs in infants or emergency care resulting from shock, drowning, heart attack, etc.
“A lot of people don’t understand what respiratory therapy means, I basically say that I help people breathe,” explained Phuong Holland, RT, a Respiratory Therapist who has practiced for almost a decade. Learn about Respiratory Therapist requirements.
One function of a Respiratory Therapist is to connect patients who cannot breathe on their own to ventilators which will do the work of breathing for them. This ensures that enough oxygen is delivered to their blood. RTs sometimes work in home care settings to inspect and clean equipment, to teach best practices to patients and their families, and as well, to instruct caregivers on how to properly operate ventilators and other life-support systems.
“I also assist with cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) throughout the hospital. I work with all age groups from newborns to the elderly”, added Holland. “Additionally, I teach patients how to use respiratory equipment and breathing techniques, and work with other disciplines to develop a plan of care to help patients get discharged and take care of themselves. This care may include people with sleep apnea and those that need help to quit smoking.” Respiratory Therapists may be on-call for emergency home visits.
Respiratory Therapists may be on-call for emergency home visits, or to assist hospitals in related areas of practice, such as sleep apnea and counseling in regards to quitting smoking.
Through working closely with registered Registered Nurses, Nurse Practitioners, Physician Assistants, Family Physicians and Surgeons, as well as Medical Assistants, these professionals use a variety of tests to evaluate and diagnose patients. From testing lung capacity to performing chest physiotherapy to taking blood samples which analyze oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, Respiratory Care Practitioners must be comprehensive in their analysis in order to come to accurate, result-driven solutions.
Respiratory Therapy Technicians vs Respiratory Therapists: Some practices or facilities choose to hire Respiratory Therapy Technicians to their healthcare staff, who work alongside supervising Physicians and Respiratory Therapists to assess and treat patients with breathing problems. As a more entry-level professional in the field of respiratory medicine, these Technicians monitor patients during treatments, operating oxygen therapy equipment, set up and adjust ventilators, enforce equipment safety rules, sterilize tools and keep patient records.
Ultimately, the difference between Respiratory Therapy Technicians and Respiratory Therapists boils down to educational requirements and responsibilities. Therapists are required to complete a two-year degree in respiratory therapy whereas Technicians must complete one-year certificate program in respiratory therapy. Due to the increased educational requirements, Respiratory Therapists tend to make a higher salary than Technicians, and have more autonomy in treatment and care of their patients. Oftentimes Respiratory Therapists will supervise Respiratory Therapy Technicians.
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Education & Training
Ever wonder how to become a Respiratory Therapist? Well, to enter this career, an Associate’s Degree is required and acceptable programs are typically offered by colleges, universities, vocational-technical institutes and the Armed Forces. However, due to the nature of the work, many employers prefer their Respiratory Therapists to have obtained a Bachelor’s Degree.
“Most states require that the RT school is accredited so make sure the school you attend has the required accreditation. Many states do require a 2-year degree in respiratory therapy which includes a required number of clinical hours,” Holland said. “I did not struggle with the schooling, but some students had difficulty, as it requires a lot of studying.”
During these years of study, students can overcome the challenges of studying by enhancing their organizational skills and reaching out to additional resources for help when necessary. Respiratory therapy students can expect to take classes on human anatomy, physiology, chemistry, physics, microbiology, pharmacology and mathematics. Other courses may involve therapeutic and diagnostic procedures and tests, equipment, patient assessment and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), as well as a clinical component adding supervised, practical experience with patients.
To obtain a license in the field, accreditation by the National Board of Respiratory Care may be required. Furthermore, most Respiratory Therapists are required to pass the registry within their first few months to a year of being hired.
“After completing the program, there is a national test to pass in order to be credentialed. The first one is called CRT (certified) the second one is RRT (registered),” Holland explained. “Most hospitals now require RTs to become registered, and these licenses are renewed every couple or few years.”
A willingness to travel can help enhance the prospects for advancement within the Resp Tech industry. This is because, as some areas are saturated with respiratory professionals, other, more rural areas, are extremely lacking. Additionally, while certification is only recommended, obtaining it may increase an applicant’s overall competitiveness for a particular position, leading to the potential for advancement.
Holland noted that these additional certifications can be in areas such as for neonatal and pulmonary function tests. Although he explained that acquiring these certifications does not necessarily translate to higher wages, they are extra credentials to add to a resume.
“Most Respiratory Therapists don’t bother with these certifications because they don’t automatically mean greater pay or advancements,” Holland said. “Some hospitals look at those, but without the actual hours of experience, they don’t mean much.”
Another way a Respiratory Therapist can seek out advancement particularly in a hospital setting is to pick up overtime shifts or work their way toward becoming a shift lead. In this role, a Respiratory Therapist can both manage staffing and act as resource for less experienced staff.
“That exact title and responsibilities of a shift lead is dependent upon each facility,” Holland said.
Experience & Skills
To be an effective Respiratory Care Practitioner, professionals should have the skills necessary to interview and examine patients, and to identify their breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders. Furthermore, they must be able to effectively consult with the patients to identify programs and potential remedies.
“You need to have basic patient assessment skills such as vital signs, learning breath sounds, symptoms of distress in all ages, customer service skills, knowledge of medication and how to troubleshoot,” Holland said. “A lot of our responsibility is troubleshooting, and all of these skills are all learned in school.”
Other responsibilities include being able to perform diagnostic testing, treating patients through methods such as chest physiotherapy and aerosol medications and connecting patients to ventilators. To do this, Respiratory Therapists must insert a tube in the patient’s trachea (or windpipe) and connect that tube to a ventilator. Then, the equipment must be monitored to ensure that the patient is receiving the appropriate level of oxygen and at the correct rate.
Lastly, a Respiratory Therapist must be able to record the patient’s progress, and teach them how to take the required medication/use the necessary equipment as needed.
Before committing to a career as a Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT), a professional should consider whether or not they possess the characteristics best suited for the career. These include the ability to show compassion and sympathy to patients in need of healthcare, the patience and problem-solving skills to determine and diagnose the issue being faced and the interpersonal skills to interact with and build trusting relationships with patients. Additionally, Respiratory Therapists should be detail-oriented so that results can be efficiently recorded and a diagnosis can be achieved in a timely matter.
“You have to be patient and empathetic, we are dealing with people that can not breathe, which can frighten them,” Holland said. “Respiratory Therapists need to understand urgency, but remain calm under stress. They should also have thick skin because people can become agitated and they will deal with a lot of different personalities from patients to nurses, doctors, and family members.”
Holland added that RTs should be willing to educate others, and should not be lazy. He said they should also always be willing to learn and change “because respiratory is a relatively new field and there is still much to learn.”
Most full-time CRTs often find themselves working in healthcare facilities which are open during the evening, night and weekend hours. Thus, those considering this career should be open to the idea of working those shifts, as well as being on their feet for long periods of time. Respiratory Therapists should also possess the fitness needed to lift or turn disabled patients.
“For those that work night shift, it is hard to sleep, they are always tired and most people do not understand the work schedule,” Holland said. “Most hospital still have 12-hour shifts for RTs which is really nice because then you only work three days a week, and it is easy to schedule vacation in between work.”
He continued that work loads can be heavy, fast-paced and with non-stop movement during the whole 12 hour shift. However, Holland explained that as a whole, the career is very rewarding, and that patients who need the therapies are very appreciative.
“Be prepared to give breathing treatments for every ailment because albuterol is the cure all,” Holland said.
Employed by state, local and private hospitals, as well as nursing care facilities and the offices of Physicians, employment within this field is expected to grow 21 percent over the next decade, much faster than the average for all occupations (BLS). This growth is due to a growing middle-aged and older popular, leading to the increased presence of respiratory conditions, including pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other disorders that can permanently damage the lungs or restrict lung function.
Furthermore, as these conditions present themselves, an equally increased emphasis will be put on prevention care, early detection and respiratory treatments. Environmentally, air pollution, smoke and gas emissions will also lead to growing needs for respiratory care among the general public, causing great need for RTs.
“Start in an acute hospital setting for a couple years to learn patient assessment skills and learn equipment,” Holland recommended. “Then, if you prefer long-term care or home health, try those.”
The median annual wage for a CRT is $61,330. However, the lowest 10 percent earned less than $44,850, while the highest 10 percent earn more than $86,980. The highest earning wages for Respiratory Therapists are in California, followed by Nevada, New Jersey and New York (BLS).
“Pay in the bay area, San Francisco Bay-area is nice, but be careful of other cities or states because the pay may not have caught up with the cost of living,” Holland warned. “in these cases, the pay is just decent.”
He also warned that when looking for travel assignments, Respiratory Care Practitioners should factor in costs such as rental cars and housing when determining if the pay is satisfactory. These often “forgotten costs” can drastically impact earnings if not taken into account.
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
The American Association for Respiratory Care is the leading national and international professional association for respiratory care. The AARC encourages and promotes professional excellence, advances the science and practice of respiratory care and serves as an advocate for patients and their families, the public, the profession and the respiratory therapist.
Take science courses in anatomy, physiology, microbiology and other general education classes
Enroll in a AA/AS degree program
Keep in mind that the classes required for these programs can generally be taken at any school, but registration in sciences courses is more competitive and more difficult.
All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meet the professional: Phuong Holland
Age: 35 Practice: Travel assignments Location: Previously San Francisco Bay-area, currently in Hawaii
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“This is not a career for someone who is lazy, be willing to work.”
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Some people don’t realize how much customer service is involved in this career. You have to balance between doing your duties, providing appropriate, effective and necessary care, being professional, and making sure your are polite, professional and friendly to patients, coworkers and family members. If you can’t deal with people, this career probably isn’t for you.”
Why did you choose to become a Respiratory Therapist?
“I wanted to be a nurse, but the program was difficult to get into and this was the next best in my opinion. The more I learn about respiratory while in school the more i enjoyed it, it really is a rewarding career. It also pays well in the Bay Area.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Conscientious; In every definition of the word!”
Credentialing organization: The Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care
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