Exciting Careers in Respiratory Therapy & How To Start

Do you want to get into the field of respiratory therapy? Find out what schooling you need and what jobs you can get.

If you are looking for a rewarding career in a healthcare field, respiratory therapy is a good career path to consider. If you study to become a respiratory therapist, there are many possible ways to use your training. For example, you may wish to work with elderly patients or with infants. You could also opt for a general position treating patients of all ages. You must choose based on your skills, as well as your personality and preferences. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts a 23 percent increase in workers employed as respiratory therapists by 2030 compared to the number of employed respiratory therapists in 2020. Changes in the population and medical practices are expect to contribute to that growth. For example, hospitals are expected to discourage lengthy or repeated admittance for certain conditions. Therefore, nursing homes and other care facilities may have increased needs for those trained in respiratory therapy. To decide if you want to become one of those in-demand respiratory therapists, you must consider factors like job requirements, projected salary, and schooling requirements, such as those outlined below.


What is Respiratory Therapy?

A respiratory therapists, or RT is a professional trained in medical treatments related to breathing. Any ailments impacting the lungs are the domain of a trained RT. Respiratory therapy is the practice of making breathing easier through medical means. Sometimes respiratory therapy is performed in response to trauma, such as when a car accident causes a patient to suffer from a collapsed lung. It is also used to help patients with specific and often chronic ailments like: 

  • Asthma

  • Pneumonia

  • Bronchitis

  • Emphysema

What Does a Respiratory Therapist  Do?

The basic job of a respiratory therapist is to prevent, diagnose, or treat breathing problems. However, if you want to become a respiratory therapist you must prepare to perform many smaller tasks during the performance of your job. For example, you must be able to communicate well with patients, their families, and other medical professionals. You must also learn how to prepare and administer medications. Specific tasks you may have to perform include but are not limited to:

  • Performing Lung Capacity Tests

  • Administering Medication

  • Coordinating with Other Medical Team Members

  • Track Long-Term Data to Monitor Recovery Processes

  • Compile and Analyze Patient Files

  • Operate Ventilators and Other Equipment

  • Show Patients and Family Members How to Operate Equipment 

How Do You Become a Respiratory Therapist?

To become a respiratory therapist in the United States, you typically need to take specific courses. Then you must obtain a license. The primary exception is the state of Alaska, which does not require licensing for respiratory therapy according to the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC). However, certain military training or work experience is sometimes accepted in other states instead of a license.

What Respiratory Care Degree Do You Need?

At a minimum, you need an associate in respiratory therapy to work as an RT in most states. You may also wish to obtain a National Board of Respiratory Care (NBRC) certification, which is preferred by most employers. The NBRC offers two certification levels. Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) is the first level of certification. Advanced certification grants the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) certification. You may also opt to pursue a bachelor's degree in respiratory therapy from an accredited university.

Respiratory Therapist Schools and Programs

Respiratory therapist programs are available at both the undergraduate and graduate level. respiratory schools also offer certificate programs for those who already have a bachelor's degree in another field. respiratory therapist school typically takes two years to complete, although some programs may be completed in as little as 18 months. The cost of respiratory therapy programs can vary depending on the length of the program and the type of degree offered. Some respiratory schools offer financial aid to help offset the cost of tuition. It is important to research the respiratory therapy programs that are available in order to find the one that best meets your needs. Once you have completed a respiratory therapy program, you will be eligible to take the national licensing examination.

Respiratory therapists provide care for patients who have difficulty breathing—for example, from a chronic respiratory disease, such as asthma or emphysema. They also provide emergency care to those suffering from heart attacks, drownings, or shock. respiratory therapists assess patients' breathing status and respiratory function; design respiratory therapy treatment plans; implement respiratory therapy treatments; and provide education and support to patients, families, and caregivers. respiratory therapists typically need an associate's degree from an accredited respiratory therapist school; however, some therapists have a bachelor's degree in respiratory therapy. Programs in respiratory therapy typically last 2 years and include classroom, laboratory, and clinical work.

Costs associated with becoming a respiratory therapist can vary depending on the type of program you choose to enter. For example, an accredited associate's degree program may cost between $5,000 and $10,000 per year. In addition, many respiratory schools require students to complete clinical rotations at local hospitals or other health care facilities. These rotations may have additional costs associated with them, such as tuition for the rotation itself or travel expenses. Once you have completed your training, you will need to pass a national certification exam in order to become a licensed respiratory therapist. The cost of the exam is approximately $200. In total, the cost of becoming a respiratory therapist can range from $10,000 to $20,000. most respiratory therapists complete a 1-year internship as part of their training. After successfully completing the internship and passing the certification exam, they are eligible to apply for state licensure. Once licensed, they may find employment in hospitals, clinics, home health agencies, or nursing homes. Some respiratory therapists may also find employment in industrial settings where they develop programs to prevent lung diseases caused by occupational exposure to harmful substances. Others may work in pulmonary rehabilitation programs helping patients who have chronic lung diseases regain their independence through exercise and education programs. Still others may work in sleep disorder centers evaluating and treating patients with sleep apnea or other sleep disorders. The average salary for a respiratory therapist is $60,280 per year. Employment of respiratory therapists is expected to grow 19 percent from 2012 to 2022—faster than the average for all occupations (www.bls.gov). The increasing prevalence of chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma and COPD is expected to lead to an increased demand for respiratory therapies services.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Respiratory Therapist?

The length of time it takes to become a respiratory therapist depends on which degrees and certifications you pursue and which institutions you attend. In general, expect to spend about two years meeting minimum educational requirements for respiratory therapy. However, some programs are faster. If you opt to pursue a bachelor's degree, your training may take four years or longer. Also, your training will not end when you obtain your degree.

After you have met minimum educational requirements, you can apply to take a licensure exam in your state, unless you live in Alaska where one is not required. Once you pass your licensure exam, you are qualified to practice respiratory therapy within your state. Be aware you may have to retake a licensure exam in a new state, if you ever move out of your current state. Although, some states do accept out-of-state RT licenses.

In addition to the time it takes to complete your initial RT schooling and licensure, you must keep re-qualifying in most states. The re-qualification process varies by state, but it usually involves retaking your licensure exam every few years. You may also have to complete a certain number of hours attending seminars or workshops.

Where Can You Work As a Respiratory Therapist?

Approximately 75 percent of all respiratory therapists work in hospitals around the world. They are typically called upon to assist admitted patients with chronic breathing ailments and emergency or trauma victims. However, you are not limited to working for a hospital when you hold an RT certification. Also, if you do work for a hospital, you can still specialize by working in one department. For example, you may opt to work in a neonatal ICU on infants. You could also choose to work specifically in the field of diagnostics and analyze lab results for hospital patients. If you want to work elsewhere, options include: 

  • Cardiopulminary Rehabilitation Centers

  • Home Health Agencies

  • Elderly Care Facilities

  • Facilities for the Physically Handicapped 

How Much Can You Expect to Earn as a Respiratory Therapist?

According to 2019 data provided by U.S. News and World Report, the average salary of a respiratory therapist working in the United States was approximately $61,000. However, the amounts respiratory therapists make vary widely based on experience, work environment, and number of hours worked. Location also makes a difference. For example, respiratory therapists in California were paid the highest average salaries in 2019  compared to average salaries in other U.S. states.

Is Respiratory Therapy Right for You?

Although respiratory therapy is a growing field with high earning potential, it is not right for everyone. Only you can decide if it is the best choice for you. To make that decision, consider your strong suits and potential stumbling blocks. Make sure you enjoy working with people, are comfortable with medical terminology and practices, and do not mind long or on-call hours. If you have the skills and do not mind the workload, respiratory therapy is a rewarding and stable career.