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Respiratory Therapist giving breathing treatment to young patient

Respiratory Therapy Careers and Degrees: Here’s What You Need to Know

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It can be argued that nothing is more important than breath. Which is why so many are drawn to a career as a respiratory therapist. Respiratory therapists help patients breathe better, taking care of patients suffering from chronic or acute illnesses like asthma or pneumonia.

Learn how to become a respiratory therapist, what to look for in respiratory therapy training, and more about this exciting health care career.

Why Become a Respiratory Therapist?

Respiratory therapists work in a variety of medical settings helping patients work on breathing problems.1

According to the BLS, as middle-age and older populations age, there will likely be an increased incidence of respiratory conditions such as pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other disorders that can permanently damage the lungs or restrict lung function. Additionally, as hospitals continue to fight to lower readmission rates, there may be greater demand for respiratory therapists in outpatient settings such as nursing homes and doctor’s offices.

Overall, the advances in medicine in preventing and detecting disease, improved medications, and more sophisticated treatments will also increase the demand for respiratory therapists. Also, as smoking, pollution, and respiratory illnesses continue to be prevalent, there should be more demand for therapists to treat these issues, according to the BLS.

Start Your Career as a Respiratory Therapist

Carrington College focuses on small class sizes and hands-on training. Here you’re more than a face in a room. Take the first step on your way to a new career in respiratory therapy.

What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

Respiratory therapists care for those who have trouble breathing. Some of the most common chronic respiratory illnesses are chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, occupational lung diseases and pulmonary hypertension. According to the World Health Organization’s most recent data, more than 339 million people had asthma globally4 and there were 251 million cases of COPD globally in 2016.5

Respiratory therapists work with common respiratory patients like those described above, as well as everyone from premature infants with undeveloped lungs to elderly patients who have diseased lungs. Respiratory therapists also provide emergency care to patients suffering from heart attacks, drowning, or shock, according to the BLS.6

Some common job duties of a respiratory therapist include:

  • Interviewing and examining patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders
  • Consulting with physicians to develop patient treatment plans
  • Performing diagnostic tests, such as measuring lung capacity
  • Treating patients by using a variety of methods, including chest physiotherapy and aerosol medications
  • Monitoring and recording patients’ progress
  • Teaching patients how to take medications and use equipment, such as ventilators

Respiratory therapists use a variety of tools to measure lung capacity, as well as bloodwork to determine oxygen levels. They also can provide physiotherapy on patients to remove mucus from their lungs and make it easier for them to breathe. Removing mucus is necessary for patients suffering from lung diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, and involves the therapist vibrating the patient’s rib cage, often by tapping the patient’s chest while the patient coughs.

Where Do Respiratory Therapists Work?

Respiratory therapists can work in a variety of medical settings. While the BLS reports that 82% of respiratory therapists worked in either state, local or private hospitals,8 they are not limited to there.

According to the American Association of Respiratory Care, respiratory therapists can be found in:9

  • Intensive care units
  • Emergency rooms
  • Newborn and pediatric units
  • Operating rooms and surgical suites
  • In-home care settings
  • Sleep laboratories
  • Smoking cessation programs
  • Asthma education programs
  • Physicians’ offices
  • Skilled nursing facilities

All of these settings will see respiratory therapists working to help people breathe easier, through lifesaving procedures like ventilation or everyday pulmonary therapy.

Skills for Respiratory Therapists

Respiratory therapy is a skilled industry. There are many technical abilities you will need to learn to pursue this career, including physiotherapy and other respiratory treatments. Those skills can be learned at various Respiratory Care programs. There are, however, so-called “soft skills” and traits that may make one more suited for a career in respiratory therapy. According to O*NET, these can include:

  • Active Listening — Giving full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand the points being made, asking questions as appropriate, and not interrupting at inappropriate times.
  • Critical Thinking — Using logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions or approaches to problems.
  • Speaking — Talking to others to convey information effectively.
  • Active Learning — Understanding the implications of new information for both current and future problem-solving and decision-making.
  • Service Orientation — Actively looking for ways to help people.
  • Social Perceptiveness — Being aware of others’ reactions and understanding why they react as they do.
  • Complex Problem Solving — Identifying complex problems and reviewing related information to develop and evaluate options and implement solutions.
  • Judgment and Decision Making — Considering the relative costs and benefits of potential actions to choose the most appropriate one.
  • Time Management — Managing one’s own time and the time of others.
  • Inductive Reasoning — The ability to combine pieces of information to form general rules or conclusions.
  • Problem Sensitivity — The ability to tell when something is wrong or is likely to go wrong. It does not involve solving the problem, only recognizing there is a problem.
  • Deductive Reasoning — The ability to apply general rules to specific problems to produce answers that make sense.
  • Information Ordering — The ability to arrange things or actions in a certain order or pattern according to a specific rule or set of rules.
  • Perceptual Speed — The ability to quickly and accurately compare similarities and differences among sets of letters, numbers, objects, pictures, or patterns.

How to Become a Respiratory Therapist

Unlike some more accessible medical fields that can allow entry-level employees to learn on the job, respiratory therapy requires a degree from an accredited institution. Here’s how to become a respiratory therapist:

  1. Obtain an associate’s degree. The respiratory therapy school you attend should be accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC).
  2. Obtain your RRT certification.CRTs who want to advance their career can pursue registered respiratory therapist status by passing an exam. Depending on where you live and work, an RRT certification may be required to obtain licensure or find employment.
  3. Gain experience. Working as a respiratory technician can give you hands-on experience. Some states require continuing education before licensure.
  4. Pass a certifying exam. Some states may require that you be a certified respiratory therapist, which requires a multiple choice exam through the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC).
  5. Obtain licensure. All states except for Alaska require RTs to be licensed. There are various state licensure boards and committees. Check with the state in which you would like to work.
  6. Stay up-to-date with licensure. While all states (except Alaska) have different requirements, most require you to renew your license
  7. Obtain your RRT certification. CRTs who want to advance their career can pursue registered respiratory therapist status by passing an exam.
  8. Obtain a Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Therapy (BSRT). The next level of career for respiratory therapists is to obtain a BSRT.

It’s important to note that all 49 states that regulate the practice of respiratory care use the NBRC CRT or RRT credential as the basis for state licensure.9

respiratory care using stethoscope on patient

Discover Your Career as a Respiratory Therapist

Carrington College’s Respiratory Care Program offers you the hands-on training you need for a job in respiratory therapy. Take the first step on your way to a new career.

Different Levels of Respiratory Therapy Certification

The National Board of Respiratory Care (NBRC) offers a number of different certifications for respiratory therapists. These certifications may affect state licensure requirements.

Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) Requirements

A Certified Respiratory Therapist is the lowest level of certification by the NBRC. To be eligible for CRT certification you must:10

  • Be 18 or older
  • Be a graduate of and have a minimum of an associate degree from a respiratory therapy education program supported or accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC).

Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) Requirements

The RRT designation is nationally recognized as the standard of care for respiratory therapists. To qualify for RRT certification you must:11

  • Be 18 years of age or older
  • AND be a graduate of and have a minimum of an associate degree from a respiratory therapy education program supported or accredited by CoARC
  • OR be a CRT for at least four years prior to applying for the examinations associated with the RRT credential. Additionally you must meet some education requirements that include certain classes but not a CoARC accredited associate degree.
  • OR be a CRT for at least two years prior to applying for the examinations associated with the RRT credential. In addition, the applicant shall have earned a minimum of an associate degree from an accredited entry-level respiratory care education program.
  • OR be a CRT for at least two years prior to applying for the examinations associated with the RRT credential. In addition, the applicant shall have earned a baccalaureate degree in an area other than respiratory care and shall have taken certain courses.
  • OR hold the Canadian Society of Respiratory Therapists (CSRT) RRT credential.

Certified Pulmonary Function Technologist (CPFT)

A CPFT designation signals to employers that you are specialized in pulmonary function technology. To become CPFT certified you must:12

  • Have a minimum of an associate degree from a respiratory care education program that is supported or accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC).
  • OR be a Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) or Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) credentialed by the NBRC.
  • OR Meet education requirements including 62 semester hours of college credit from a college or university accredited by its regional association or its equivalent, and college credit level courses in biology, chemistry and mathematics. Additionally, you must have at least six months of clinical experience in the field of pulmonary function technology.

Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist (RPFT)

RPFT and CPFTs take the same test and have the same admissions requirements. However, high cuts of scores earn a RPFT designation, where low cuts of scores are CPFTs.13

Certified Respiratory Therapist Specialties

There are also a number of specialized tests and certifications for respiratory therapists that signal to employers that the certified RRT or CRT has special skills in certain areas. These are:14

  • Adult Critical Care Specialty (RRT-ACCS)
  • Neonatal/Pediatric Specialty (RRT-NPS)
  • Sleep Disorders Specialty (CRT/RRT-SDS)

What to Look for in a Respiratory Therapy Training

Choosing the right school to pursue respiratory therapy is a big decision. The right training can open doors for better jobs and possibly salary down the line. While many institutions may offer respiratory therapy degrees, it’s important that you look for the one that fits your goals and lifestyle.

A few core things to look for when considering Respiratory Care programs include:

  • Small class sizes. When learning to be a Respiratory Therapist you want individual attention from your instructor.
  • Hands-on training. When dealing with tasks like drawing blood and performing physiotherapy, it’s important that you have time to practice those skills hands-on.
  • Externships or career training. Most programs include an opportunity to learn in the real world before you even graduate! You’ll earn an impressive experience that looks great on your resume.
  • Cost. Education is a major investment, but it’s an investment in your future. At Carrington College and many other institutions, we participate in most financial assistance programs, both federal and state, as well as private financing. Student loans, grants, and scholarships are available to those who qualify. For complete information on current tuition costs, please see the academic catalog.

How Long is Respiratory Therapy Training

A typical respiratory therapy degree can be obtained in as few as two years.

What Will I Learn in Respiratory Therapist Training

Most respiratory therapy training programs cover knowledge of anatomy and physiology of cardiac and respiratory systems and biochemical and cellular functions of the human body, as well as knowledge of the general principles of pharmacology and cardiopulmonary drugs including knowledge of indications, doses, calculations, mechanisms of action and adverse effects.

Skills in patient examination, assessment, intervention and treatment planning, especially in relation to the pathophysiology of cardiopulmonary diseases, are a big part of the program. Additionally, knowledge and skills in the principles and applications of emergency medicine, resuscitation equipment, intubation, airway clearance, chest tubes and tracheostomy care should be taught.

Start Training for Your Career in Respiratory Therapy With Carrington College

Carrington College is experienced in turning out highly trained respiratory therapists who should be ready to enter the work world. Carrington College features small class sizes, hands-on training, skills labs and a world-class faculty. Learn more about the Carrington Respiratory Care program.

Carrington’s Respiratory Care Faculty and Students

Carrington College takes a personal approach to preparing graduates for professional success. Our faculty members are experienced and passionate about helping you reach your career goals—whether they involve furthering your healthcare career or changing industries altogether.

With students of different backgrounds and ages, you’ll develop respiratory therapist skills in a robust community. Carrington cares that you’re not just a face in a classroom. Your peers and teachers will know and care about you and your career.

Find Respiratory Therapist Training Near Me

Carrington College’s Respiratory Care program is available at three locations in Arizona, California, and Nevada. Find out if one of our locations is right for you.

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