What is a respiratory therapist?

There are a lot of reasons why you may want to pursue a career in respiratory therapy. Maybe it’s your interest in healthcare that has led you here. Or your desire to help others. Or the growing job opportunity in this field. Regardless of your reason for checking out this field, respiratory therapy is a relatively new career in healthcare, and it is still steadily growing. If you decide to become a therapist, you can start practicing in as little as two years with a reasonably estimated salary of $60,000. Sounds great, right? 

Respiratory therapists (RT) care for patients’ breathing and the overall cardiopulmonary system. The issues they deal with could be minor or critical. For instance, you would visit a respiratory therapist if you have trouble breathing or you suffer from respiratory diseases like asthma or emphysema. Patients seen by someone in this field would include newborns with underdeveloped lungs to more senior patients who have a respiratory disorder, like sleep apnea. Respiratory Therapists will also assist with the emergency care of patients who have experienced heart attacks, drowning, or shock.

General Responsibilities of a RT

  • Interview and assess patients with cardiopulmonary diseases
  • Refer to physicians to discuss patient treatment options
  • Run diagnostic tests (i.e., determine lung capacity)
  • Provide treatments to patients using a variety of methods (i.e., chest physiotherapy and aerosol treatments)
  • Monitor and document patients’ progress level
  • Educate patients on how to take medications and administer treatments

While having in-depth knowledge of the airway and lungs, respiratory therapists must also be able to operate various machines and instruments to deliver respiratory care treatments. This would include overseeing patients on ventilators or life-support and determining their oxygen levels.

Everyday activities performed by a RT:

  • Test patients’ lung capacity by breathing into an instrument that measures the volume and flow of oxygen when they breathe
  • Take blood samples and test oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in it with a blood gas analyzer
  • Conduct chest physiotherapy by removing mucus from a patients’ lungs which helps them to breathe easier
  • May hook patients up to a ventilator which delivers oxygen to the lungs in cases where the patient cannot breathe
  • In-home care situations, inspect and clean ventilators, and life-support systems. Also, check the home for environmental hazards and educate patients on how to use the equipment
  • Diagnose breathing issues for patients with sleep apnea


How are work hours?

Hospital shifts can typically last 12 hours, and many therapists spend a reasonable amount of time on their feet. If you decide to pursue this career and work in a hospital, you may work evenings, nights, weekends, and holidays. The good news is many therapists only work four days a week, so you will have three days to recover.

If you want to work in respiratory therapy, but don’t want to the work environment of a hospital, you do have other options. Many RTs work in physicians’ offices or as educators. A smaller percentage of respiratory therapists work at private companies and local governments. These types of jobs will typically offer less stress than a hospital and provide shorter shift hours. The pay can also be higher or lower, depending on which industry you pursue. If you want more information on salaries, check out our guide to RT salary.


Where do they work?

Respiratory therapists can be mainly found working at the hospital in areas such as the emergency room, intensive care unit, pediatric care unity, and the pulmonary assessment laboratory. RTs can be found in so many areas of a hospital because they work with people of all ages, and anyone can have breathing problems regardless of what age they are.

Outside of hospitals, respiratory therapists can be seen working in rehabilitation clinics where they will perform pulmonary rehabilitation. They may also educate patients on the benefits of quitting smoking and disease prevention. In a home care setting, therapists will inform their patients and families on how to use respiratory equipment. The last few places people in this field can be found are physician offices, nursing facilities, and sleep research centers. 

Industries with the highest rt employment


IndustryEmploymentAnnual Wage
General Hospital98,960$62,570
Nursing Care Facilities6,070$62,590
Physicians' Office2,620$61,050
Rental & Leasing Services2,620$54,130


Other Career Opportunities for a RT

If you discover you love respiratory therapy, but you don’t like working in a hospital or healthcare facility, there are other options for you. Some therapists will transition to the corporate world by finding jobs with equipment manufactures and becoming product specialists. You are a great benefit in a corporate setting because of your technical knowledge and patient care experience.

Another option if you no longer wish to practice is teaching. Many choose to switch to a teaching position because of the extra pay and more relaxed work hours. You would have the option of being a part of the faculty at a school or a clinical education coordinator for a hospital. Many positions like these also include research opportunities as well.


Is Respiratory Therapy right for you?

Respiratory therapy is an expanding field that is complete with challenges and fulfillment. Whenever you are about to pursue something new, like a career, you want to perform the proper research before committing to anything. You also want to make sure you are comfortable with the duties and responsibilities that come with the job.

For instance, as a respiratory therapist, you will be dealing with some bodily fluids (not all but some) like blood and mucus. So, it is beneficial for you to decide if you will have issues drawing blood from people because you may need to determine oxygen levels in the blood.

If you are grossed out by these things, this is something you must consider when pursuing a career in respiratory therapy. It’s better to be honest with yourself and decide that something isn’t for you rather than figuring out you don’t like it after you graduate RT school.

 Good Qualities to Have as an RT:

  • Compassion – Though emotional support isn’t always in the career description, it is a great attribute to have as you may need to sympathetic to patients as they undergo treatment.
  • Detail-focused – Detail is crucial as you will need to make sure patients are given the correct levels of treatments and medications in a timely fashion
  • Social skills – You will continuously be caring for patients and working with other healthcare professionals as a team
  • Patience – You may have to deal with patients who need more care than others.
  • Problem-solver – You will need to assess patients’ symptoms and coordinate with other medical professionals to recommend the appropriate treatment
  • Anatomy and physiology knowledge – You will need to have a good understanding of the cardiopulmonary system when administering treatments

What are some useful skills to have?

  • Active Listening – Give complete attention to what your patients and medical team are saying Take time to understand the points that are being made and ask questions if there is any confusion.
  • Critical Thinking – Being able to take all the information in front of you, make a reasonable decision, and act is a must in this field. RTs will mainly use this skill in diagnosing patients and providing treatment.
  • Anatomy and physiology knowledge – You will need a good understanding of the cardiopulmonary system when providing assessments and treatment options
  • Infection control – Protect patients and medical staff by adhering to infection-control policies and protocols.
  • Health promotion and maintenance – Provide patients with therapeutic plans after they are leased by designing home exercise programs and recommending assistive equipment.
  • Creating a safe, productive environment – Provide quality care to patients by conducting tests, assessing and interpreting test results, and consulting with physicians for treatment options. You will also need to follow the safety and operating guidelines to ensure the best experience for your patients.
  • Speaking – It is essential to communicate effectively with patients, families, and medical staff, so the best care is provided to the patient. You should speak clearly, so information is easily conveyed, and procedures are understood.
  • Social intelligence – Having excellent interpersonal skills is needed so you can establish trust with your patients and their families. It also allows you to work effectively with your medical team.
  • Service Orientation – Actively look for ways to provide care for your patients and give them the best experience possible
  • Complex Problem Solving – Identify problems and review related information to determine your options and implement solutions.

How to Become a Respiratory Therapist?

 The time it takes to become a respiratory therapist is relatively short compared to other medical fields, but the effort is still needed. Check out what’s required to become a practicing RT.

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