Working as a Respiratory Therapist

February 10, 2015

Article by Global Pre-Meds
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Practical teaching from a student mentor in the general medical wardsMedicine today involves a team approach. A team of nurses, doctors, and allied health care specialists are often involved in the care of a patient. Whether you are looking into different healthcare careers or have decided on one, it is helpful to understand the role of various healthcare occupations.

There are many allied heath specialties including respiratory therapy, which play an important role in caring for patients. Although it is possible to live without food and water for a period of time, if you are not breathing, you cannot survive for more than a few minutes.

 Breathing problems can be caused by a variety of conditions, such as chronic or acute lungs diseases including asthma, cystic fibrosis and pneumonia. Breathing can also be affected if the brain is injured. For instance, trauma to the head due to motor vehicle accidents, falls and assaults can all impair breathing. Because of the complexity of the respiratory system and the variety of treatments, the field of respiratory therapy was developed about 65 years ago.

Responsibilities of an RT

Respiratory therapists treat patients of all ages from premature babies to the elderly. The responsibilities of a respiratory therapist start with assessing the patient. This may involve performing a targeted exam focusing on the lungs and circulation. Assessment may also include performing various diagnostic tests to measure the efficiency of the patient’s breathing. Tests may include peak flows, pulmonary function tests and measurements of arterial blood.

After determining the need for treatment, therapists often develop a respiratory treatment plan for the patients. Many facilities have protocols in place, which means a therapist has standing orders from the doctor to provide certain types of treatments.

 Treatment will depend on the type of problem, patient’s condition, age and underlying health problems. For instance, therapists may administer medication and perform chest physical therapy to assist with coughing.   Students during on-placement clinical teaching

In some cases, patients may require the assistance of a machine to breath. RT’s may insert a breathing tube into the airway and place the person on a mechanical ventilator, also known as a life support machine, to help with breathing. 

A respiratory therapist also provides education to patients on their condition. Many lung conditions including asthma are chronic. Education can help patients understand how to manage their condition at home and prevent symptoms from developing. 


Training and Education

Students interested in becoming a respiratory therapist should take science and math classes in high school. Classes in biology and physics may be especially helpful.

There are both two and four-year respiratory therapy programs. Either option meets eligibility requirements for state licensing. RT programs involve classroom lectures, laboratory work and clinical rotations to hospitals and medical facilities afflicted with the school. Respiratory therapy students work with preceptors at clinical sites in various patient care areas, such as the intensive care unit, emergency room and pediatrics.

After graduating from an accredited respiratory therapy program, students can apply for licensure in the state they wish to work. National licensure is also an option through the National Board of Respiratory Care. The licensing process involves a criminal background check and passing of an exam. An RT license needs to be renewed every two years.


After obtaining an RT license, additional specialty certifications are available to respiratory therapists. The requirements for certification may vary, but often includes passing an exam. Certifications include the following:

Pulmonary Function Certification: PFT certification allows respiratory therapists to perform various types of tests to measure how well a person is breathing. The tests are often used to help to make a diagnosis. Although a certification may not be required to perform PFT’s, it makes a therapist more marketable.

Sleep studies: Sleep studies are diagnostic tests, which are performed to determine if a patient has a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy. Completion of a series of classes or experience performing a certain number of sleep studies is required along with an exam.

Asthma Education: Asthma educators are needed to teach patients and their families how to manage their conditions. Information, such as avoiding triggers and medications to use can prevent serious asthma attacks. Certification requires passing an exam.


Nursing students ready for a day on the wards with their mentor!Most RT’s work in acute care hospitals. Respiratory therapists work in all patient care areas including medical-surgical floors, telemetry, pediatrics and labor and delivery. They also work in the intensive care unit and the emergency room. Some therapists may also find employment working for transport companies including air and ground ambulances companies. 

 Respiratory therapists also work in sub-acute facilities caring for patients who require long-term ventilator support. Out-patient sleep labs employ therapists, as well as smoking cessation and asthma education programs. Additional opportunities are available for respiratory therapists in management and education. 

Skills and Personality Traits Needed

Working as a respiratory therapist is not for everyone. Breathing emergencies can be stressful, and it is helpful to be able to work well under pressure. Additional skills and personality traits needed are listed below.

Respiratory therapists may have a number of patients to treat in different areas of the hospital. They often have to juggle several tasks at once. Therapists need to be well organized, have good judgment and be able to prioritize tasks.

All healthcare clinicians need to work well as a team to provide optimal patient care. As a therapist, you will work closely with doctors, nurses and other allied health professionals.

RT’S must be able to communicate effectively with other staff, patients and their families. Since education is part of the job, the ability to convey complex medical information in a way patients understand is important.

There is a difference between assertive and aggressive, and RT’s should assert themselves if needed. As a therapist, you are a patient advocate and in some cases, may need to speak up regarding care.

It can be extremely frightening to have trouble breathing. Respiratory therapists may encounter patients who are anxious, scared and feel helpless. Compassion is essential in order to provide the best possible care.