How to Become a Respiratory Therapist

What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

respiratory therapist in ER

When a heart or lung problem strikes, respiratory therapists step in to help patients breathe easier. These professionals, also known as RTs, are experts in breathing therapies, treatments and emergency response. Respiratory therapists provide care and comfort to people with asthma, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, premature birth and other medical conditions that affect the heart and lungs. They also respond to breathing-related emergencies due to drowning, heart attack or trauma.

Typical duties of a respiratory therapist include:

  • Take histories and conduct physical exams
  • Aid in the diagnosis of breathing disorders and work with the treatment team to create a plan of care
  • Conduct lung capacity testing, blood gas capacity testing, and other laboratory procedures
  • Monitor oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in patients’ breath, blood, and tissues
  • Perform chest physiotherapy to remove mucus from patients’ lungs
  • Administer aerosol (inhaled) medications and other breathing treatments
  • Insert airways and supervise ventilation for people who can’t breathe on their own
  • Provide patient and family education about lung health, breathing equipment use and more
  • Service ventilation equipment used by patients at home
  • Respond to breathing emergencies in hospitals, nursing homes, patients’ homes, and the community
  • Consult with physicians and other health care professionals to ensure the very best care
  • Supervise respiratory therapy technicians as they care for patients

Respiratory therapists get the benefits of working in a growing field that demands their skills. Many enjoy the intellectual challenge of keeping up with new advances in science and technology. Best of all, they get the personal satisfaction of bringing comfort and relief to seriously ill patients who are struggling to breathe.

Workplace Details

Most RTs work in hospitals. Common settings include emergency departments, neonatal (newborn) units, intensive care units, pediatric units, and sleep labs. Nursing homes and home health services also employ a significant number of respiratory therapists, as do emergency medical transport services. An RT’s caseload can include patients of all ages, from premature babies to elderly people.

Most respiratory therapists work full time. Because their skills are needed around the clock, night, weekend, and holiday hours are the norm, especially for those employed by hospitals and other 24-7 healthcare facilities.

Respiratory therapy is a high-tech field, and the science of care is constantly changing. RTs work with laboratory equipment, including blood gas analyzers and spirometers. They also treat patients using nebulizers, oxygen tents, ventilators, monitoring equipment, and oxygen therapy systems.

In addition to technology, therapists spend a large percentage of their working hours with people. As part of a multidisciplinary health care team, they work with physicians, nurses, dietitians, social workers, and others to carry out a patient’s plan of care. They are generally supervised by the patient’s physician and in turn may supervise the work of respiratory therapy technicians.

Salary and Job Outlook

State
Average Wage
California
$78820
Texas
$58070
Florida
$56200
Ohio
$54150
New York
$71100

Hover over any state to explore local income and job growth data.

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ALABAMA
Median Salary: 
$46,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $34,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 90

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Birmingham$35,820$46,610$61,760
Huntsville$37,060$48,610$70,670

ALASKA
Median Salary: 
$71,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $56,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $88,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Anchorage$55,190$71,430$90,670

ARIZONA
Median Salary: 
$55,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $70,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 21%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 200

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Phoenix$41,850$56,480$72,080
Tuscon$40,790$48,620$61,830

ARKANSAS
Median Salary: 
$47,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $34,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $66,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Little Rock$34,030$48,120$70,930
Fort Smith$40,890$47,850$60,250

CALIFORNIA
Median Salary: 
$79,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $55,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $104,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 600

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Los Angeles$54,610$75,460$98,630
San Francisco Bay$68,560$92,170$119,170
San Diego$50,110$73,170$98,680
Sacramento$73,710$91,370$102,450

COLORADO
Median Salary: 
$58,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $44,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $75,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 33%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Denver$45,280$58,480$75,440

CONNECTICUT
Median Salary: 
$64,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $50,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $87,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 3%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Hartford$45,150$61,490$76,950
Bridgeport$52,610$70,690$94,000

DELAWARE
Median Salary: 
$60,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $45,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $77,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wilmington$48,980$62,450$78,980

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
Median Salary: 
$67,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $47,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $91,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 7%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Washington DC$51,770$67,920$81,480

FLORIDA
Median Salary: 
$54,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $70,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 340

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Miami$41,230$54,560$71,910
Orlando$42,190$55,030$73,450
Tampa$44,600$56,630$71,780
Jacksonville$41,860$55,420$66,130

GEORGIA
Median Salary: 
$53,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $68,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 170

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Atlanta$42,680$55,860$71,020
Augusta$42,110$53,310$69,420

HAWAII
Median Salary: 
$69,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $51,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $78,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 7%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Honolulu$54,830$69,950$79,030

IDAHO
Median Salary: 
$54,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $42,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $67,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 190

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boise$42,690$53,950$66,450

ILLINOIS
Median Salary: 
$54,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $72,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 150

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Chicago$40,280$55,430$73,460
Rockford$40,810$53,330$69,310

INDIANA
Median Salary: 
$54,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $71,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 120

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Indianapolis$41,380$53,910$71,340
Fort Wayne$41,210$53,080$70,390

IOWA
Median Salary: 
$49,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Des Moines$41,450$50,910$62,410
Cedar Rapids$41,050$48,820$63,390

KANSAS
Median Salary: 
$50,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $38,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $64,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wichita$41,400$51,240$66,120
Kansas City$40,760$51,010$66,260

KENTUCKY
Median Salary: 
$47,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $35,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 31%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 170

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Louisville$37,430$48,750$61,740
Lexington$37,100$50,640$61,530

LOUISIANA
Median Salary: 
$52,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $39,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $67,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New Orleans$42,480$56,190$72,180
Baton Rouge$38,160$49,080$62,420
Lafayette$34,600$48,460$69,440

MAINE
Median Salary: 
$56,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $42,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $73,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$43,140$58,210$75,720

MARYLAND
Median Salary: 
$65,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $51,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $78,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 100

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Baltimore$52,440$66,290$79,620
Frederick$53,720$66,280$79,250

MASSACHUSETTS
Median Salary: 
$69,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $52,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $92,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boston$53,740$71,640$96,440
Worcester$53,490$71,900$93,110
Springfield$53,180$64,960$80,630

MICHIGAN
Median Salary: 
$54,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $42,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $64,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 140

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Detroit$42,990$54,920$63,670
Grand Rapids$42,300$52,890$62,790

MINNESOTA
Median Salary: 
$65,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $51,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $79,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Minneapolis - St. Paul$52,210$66,310$77,830
Rochester$54,010$70,040$92,640

MISSISSIPPI
Median Salary: 
$47,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $34,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 60

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Jackson$41,380$51,390$62,660
Gulfport$27,040$43,330$59,090

MISSOURI
Median Salary: 
$49,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $39,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $64,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 90

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
St. Louis$39,990$49,300$68,360
Kansas City$40,760$51,010$66,260

MONTANA
Median Salary: 
$52,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $63,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 24%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Billings$42,270$51,330$69,060
Missoula$42,700$53,700$62,480

NEBRASKA
Median Salary: 
$50,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Omaha$40,710$49,170$62,800

NEVADA
Median Salary: 
$69,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $52,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $93,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Las Vegas$52,070$69,180$93,630
Reno$53,200$69,450$87,020

NEW HAMPSHIRE
Median Salary: 
$62,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $50,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Manchester$53,390$65,850$77,280
Nashua$51,150$60,830$74,480

NEW JERSEY
Median Salary: 
$71,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $56,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $89,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 120

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Newark$56,990$71,330$87,140
Trenton$57,740$70,980$83,770

NEW MEXICO
Median Salary: 
$53,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $66,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Albuquerque$44,620$56,110$71,070
Las Cruces$33,170$41,480$59,790

NEW YORK
Median Salary: 
$70,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $51,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $89,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 220

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New York City$62,450$73,840$92,440
Buffalo$43,780$58,520$77,570
Rochester$41,900$54,470$70,370
Albany$45,810$58,530$74,460

NORTH CAROLINA
Median Salary: 
$53,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $65,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 21%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 180

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Charlotte$43,180$55,440$69,740
Raleigh$42,420$56,070$68,220
Greensboro$45,260$56,200$70,330

NORTH DAKOTA
Median Salary: 
$49,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Fargo$41,520$50,270$66,070

OHIO
Median Salary: 
$53,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $67,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 190

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cleveland$43,320$55,670$68,280
Columbus$40,660$53,010$68,360
Cincinnati$42,250$54,800$73,970
Dayton$42,380$54,850$69,630

OKLAHOMA
Median Salary: 
$51,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $64,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Oklahoma City$41,130$52,760$69,700
Tulsa$41,170$50,900$63,720

OREGON
Median Salary: 
$65,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $49,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $78,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$53,610$69,160$81,320

PENNSYLVANIA
Median Salary: 
$57,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $42,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 190

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Philadelphia$49,230$66,180$80,550
Pittsburgh$41,230$52,590$66,990
Harrisburg$45,690$62,470$77,090
Allentown$43,690$59,940$77,980

RHODE ISLAND
Median Salary: 
$64,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $47,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 7%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Providence$46,200$63,840$76,830

SOUTH CAROLINA
Median Salary: 
$53,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $71,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 70

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Greenville$40,610$49,850$62,250
Charleston$45,700$59,100$77,160

SOUTH DAKOTA
Median Salary: 
$48,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $39,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $63,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

TENNESSEE
Median Salary: 
$48,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $39,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 120

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Nashville$40,760$49,480$63,550
Memphis$40,560$48,410$61,470
Knoxville$36,410$46,860$60,430
Chattanooga$42,090$55,350$72,930

TEXAS
Median Salary: 
$56,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $42,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $74,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 31%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 590

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Dallas - Ft. Worth$44,140$58,710$75,840
Houston$45,190$57,540$74,290
San Antonio$38,280$51,820$66,900
Austin$43,760$56,800$72,930

UTAH
Median Salary: 
$57,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $43,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 31%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Salt Lake City$43,420$59,230$77,490
Ogden$42,300$53,800$72,460

VERMONT
Median Salary: 
$58,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $45,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $77,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

VIRGINIA
Median Salary: 
$58,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $42,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 7%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Virginia Beach$43,140$56,970$75,180
Richmond$41,870$56,520$73,640

WASHINGTON
Median Salary: 
$67,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $51,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $88,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 90

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Seattle$51,860$69,020$91,720

WEST VIRGINIA
Median Salary: 
$47,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $36,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Huntington$36,970$50,450$67,520
Charleston$35,700$45,530$59,640

WISCONSIN
Median Salary: 
$58,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $44,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $75,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 60

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Milwaukee$48,540$61,580$77,020
Madison$45,140$59,190$75,860

WYOMING
Median Salary: 
$56,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $73,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cheyenne$48,230$57,600$72,200
Casper$34,460$51,610$68,060

According for the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for respiratory therapists is $57,790, or $27.78 per hour. Salaries range from a median of $41,970 for the lowest-paid 10 percent to a median of $80,440 for the highest-paid 10 percent.

Salaries are highest for RTs working in outpatient facilities or at colleges, universities and professional schools (all of which generally require certification and a bachelor’s or master’s degree). Salaries also vary by geographic location. California currently pays the highest average wage.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of RTs is expected to grow by 12 percent between 2014 and 2024, which is faster than the average for all occupations. While there’s always been a need for excellent respiratory care, the RT profession has grown significantly in recent years. One reason for this growth is the aging of the US population. Older and middle-aged people are more susceptible to heart and lung conditions that require breathing treatments. Another reason for the growth of this profession is that the number of babies born prematurely has also been on the rise in recent years. Many “micro preemies” have underdeveloped lungs that require high-tech care. On top of these demographic trends, advances in science are creating new uses for respiratory therapy in patient care. Today, respiratory therapists treat more patients and types of conditions than ever before.

As a job hunter, you can increase your prospects by pursuing advanced certification (earning an RRT within a year of graduation is desirable). Holding a bachelor’s degree can also make you more competitive for entry-level jobs. It also helps to be flexible about location, because the need for respiratory therapists is greatest in rural areas.

The American Association of Respiratory Care (AARC) maintains an online career center where job seekers can learn what’s new in the field, view job openings, post resumes and more.

Compare Salaries by City

Los Angeles CA Median Pay

$75460 Per Year

$36.27 Per Hour

New York City NY Median Pay

$73840 Per Year

$35.5 Per Hour

Steps to Become a Respiratory Therapist

1

Earn a high school diploma.

High school students considering a career in respiratory therapy can prepare by taking courses in health, biology, math, chemistry, and physics. Volunteer or shadowing experience in a health care setting is a great way to get a feel for the health professions.

2

Complete an accredited educational program.

It’s possible to become a licensed, certified respiratory therapist with an associate degree. Many employers prefer a bachelor’s degree, and supervisory and teaching positions may require a master’s.

Show Me Schools »

The National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC), which oversees national certification, recognizes the following accrediting bodies for educational programs:

  • Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care
  • Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs

Accredited programs can be found at colleges, universities, vocational/technical schools and the military. The NBRC maintains an online database of accredited programs. The AARC has developed a template to assist students in evaluating potential programs.

Respiratory therapy education covers anatomy and physiology, chemistry, physics, microbiology, pharmacology (medication science), math and CPR/life support certification. Students also complete supervised clinical rotations.

3

Complete clinical training.

Aspiring respiratory therapists must complete a supervised clinical training program in which they learn to assess and diagnose patients and deliver common therapies and treatments. In addition, some advanced certifications in the field require work experience.

4

Become licensed in your state.

At present, practicing respiratory therapists must be licensed in all states except Alaska. Licensure typically requires fulfilling educational requirements and passing a knowledge exam. For the requirements near you, contact your state health board.

5

Gain certification.

Certification as a respiratory therapist is voluntary but preferred by many employers. Many health care settings require newly hired respiratory therapists to earn their advanced credential, or RRT, within one year.

Credentialing for respiratory therapists is administered by the NBRC, which offers two certification levels:

  • Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) is the entry-level credential. Candidates must hold an associate degree or higher from an accredited program and pass an exam covering clinical data, equipment and therapeutic procedures.
  • Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) is the higher-level credential. Candidates must hold a CRT credential and pass clinical knowledge and paper-and-pencil “simulation” exams.

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Look into advancement opportunities.

In the healthcare setting, experienced RTs can advance to the position of respiratory care manager. In this role, they oversee performance, scheduling, staffing, supervision, billing, and budgeting for the entire respiratory therapy department.

Some therapists also go on to work in the related area of case management, where they help to coordinate the care of people with chronic heart and lung disease. RTs who prefer to remain at the bedside can pursue specialty certification in sleep disorders, critical care or pediatric/neonatal care.

The public sector also offers opportunities for respiratory therapists. Community programs aimed at asthma management and smoking cessation often employ RTs. Teaching is another option for seasoned respiratory therapists. Those with advanced degrees can become professors, instructors or researchers at colleges or universities. An RT who supervises students during clinical rotations is known as a preceptor.

Explore Degree Paths

ASSOCIATE DEGREE

2 years

Respiratory therapists must hold, at minimum, an associate degree in order to practice in most states. These programs take about two years to complete (including a summer semester) and are offered through universities, community and technical colleges, vocational schools, and the armed forces.

The National Board for Respiratory Care is the sole certifying agency for respiratory therapy. It recognizes only one educational accreditor: the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC). When choosing an educational program, it’s crucial that you select one that’s CoARC accredited. CoARC maintains a searchable listing of programs on its website.

If you plan to continue your education beyond the associate degree level, look for a program with an articulation agreement. This means that the credits you earn as part of your associate degree can later be applied toward a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college in your area.

As an associate-level RT student, expect to study:

Human anatomy and physiology

Learn how the body is structured into tissues, organs, and systems and how these work together to help us function.

Microbiology

Study bacteria, funguses, viruses, and other tiny organisms and their role in human health and disease.

Pharmacology

Survey the medications used to treat and manage respiratory disease.

Clinical skills

Gain the knowledge and experience you need to diagnose and treat respiratory conditions through lecture and hands-on clinical experience.

BACHELOR'S DEGREE

4 years

Employers increasingly prefer to hire respiratory therapists with four-year degrees. This pathway can also open doors to career advancement via management, research, and teaching.

There are about 50 CoARC-accredited RT bachelor’s degree programs in the United States. Most are located at universities and four-year colleges. Some two-year colleges also have articulation agreements with local universities, allowing their students to earn first an associate degree, then a bachelor’s without retaking any classes.

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Bachelor’s degree students learn the same RT clinical skills as their associate degree counterparts. However, they have more opportunity to explore their interests through general education classes. Studying business, psychology, sociology, and communications can help to improve critical thinking skills and enrich your future practice.

Students in bachelor’s-level RT programs often study:

Respiratory care management

Learn how to lead a safe, effective respiratory therapy program that complies with state and federal regulations.

Case management

Discover resources for helping patients with complex conditions manage their health, reduce costs, and access needed care.

Seminars

Dive into advanced and timely topics in respiratory therapy taught by experts in the field.

Research methods and practicum

Learn about and apply the principles of research design, statistics, ethics, and scientific publishing.

Bachelor’s programs may also include certification in Basic Life Support, Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support, Pediatric Advanced Life Support, and neonatal resuscitation. Some also offer optional certificates in polysomnography (the study of sleep disorders).

Keys to Success as a Respiratory Therapist

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Passionate about science and math

If you enjoy science and math, a career in respiratory may be a natural fit. Strong calculation skills are necessary in order to set appropriate medication doses based on the patient’s body weight and health history.

Tech savvy

An affinity for technology helps therapists stay on top of rapid changes in treatment and equipment.

Detail-oriented

RTs also need to pay attention to detail. Treating seriously ill patients means following treatment protocols closely and sticking to a strict schedule. Therapists also need to maintain detailed patient records in order to prevent medical errors and duplications.

Problem solving

Problem-solving skills are another key quality. Success as an RT means identifying the best treatments, recognizing early signs of distress, and adjusting treatments to meet individual patients’ needs. Therapists also consult frequently with colleagues to overcome obstacles and determine appropriate courses of treatment.

Good with people

Respiratory therapy is as much about people as it is about science. Natural warmth and empathy helps RTs comfort distressed patients and their families. Patience is an asset when working with children, people with cognitive disabilities, and others who may not be able to assist with their own treatments. And as an integral part of the medical team, therapists take direction from physicians while supervising the work of technicians.

Good with street management

Patients with breathing problems are often suffering from serious or life-threatening illness, so RTs need to be comfortable interacting with people who are stressed or in pain.

Physically fit

Some lifting of patients may be required, especially for therapists working with disabled or homebound populations.

Additional Credentials

In addition to the CRT and RRT certifications, The National Board for Respiratory Care (NRBC) also offers several advanced certifications for practicing therapists:

  • Adult Critical Care Specialty (ACCS) - for RRTs working in the ICU with very sick patients who may be ventilated
  • Pulmonary Function Technologist (CPFT and RPFT) - for therapists who have demonstrated competency in diagnostic testing for respiratory disorders. Two levels of certification are available: certified (basic) and registered (advanced).
  • Neonatal/Pediatric Specialty (NPS) - this therapist has demonstrated the skills and knowledge needed to care for newborns, babies, children, and teens
  • Sleep Disorders Specialty (SDS) - denotes competency in the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders like sleep apnea

To earn any of those advanced certifications, therapists must hold a CRT or RRT credential and pass an additional knowledge exam. Some credentials have additional requirements.

Respiratory therapists who have clinical experience treating sleep disorders may be eligible for certification by the Board of Registered Polysomnographic Technologists. Both entry-level and advanced credentials are available.

Most therapists also obtain certification in:

  • Basic Life Support (BLS)
  • Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS)
  • Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support (ACLS)
  • Neonatal Resuscitation Program (NRP)

These credentials are not specific to respiratory therapy, but are required by many employers and credentialing programs.

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