How To Become A Respiratory Therapist

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Do you enjoy hands-on learning? Do you have an aptitude for critical thinking, problem-solving, and technology? Are you interested in healthcare and helping others? 

And are you considering earning an associate degree as an alternative to a four-year degree?

For the most part, we at Transizion focus on helping people get into the college of their dreams, But if a four-year degree isn’t the right path for you, we’re still here to help with valuable tips and resources. That’s why in this series of articles, we’re diving deep into a wide range of professions.

In this post, we’ll focus on how to become a respiratory therapist. Read on to learn about working conditions, education, job outlook, salary, and overall job satisfaction in this field.

What Do Respiratory Therapists Do?

Respiratory therapists assess, monitor, and help develop treatment plans for patients who have difficulty breathing. Patients range from people with chronic respiratory diseases like asthma and emphysema, premature babies with underdeveloped lungs, and patients who have suffered from a heart attack or near-drowning.

On a typical day, respiratory therapists may:

  • Interview and assess patients to learn about their lives and the symptoms they are experiencing
  • Perform diagnostic tests (e.g., measuring lung capacity, taking blood samples, and using a blood gas analyzer to test oxygen and carbon dioxide levels)
  • Consult with physicians to develop treatment plans
  • Treat patients using methods that include aerosol medications, chest physiotherapy, and connecting patients who can’t breathe on their own to ventilators
  • Monitor and record patients’ progress
  • Consult with other members of the healthcare team to adjust treatment plans as needed
  • Teach patients how to use equipment and take medication
  • Educate patients and their families about their conditions, treatments, and lifestyle choices that could improve their lives

Some respiratory therapists also counsel patients on how to stop smoking and work with people who have sleep apnea.

Work Environment

Most respiratory therapists work for hospitals, but they may also work in nursing facilities or offices of physicians. They work closely with a medical team that includes physicians and surgeons, registered nurses, and medical assistants.

Typically, respiratory therapists work full-time. In hospitals, they often work 12-hour shifts three days a week, which may include night or weekend hours. If you work in a medical office, you’re more likely to work 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Although they tend to repeat similar tasks daily, every day varies because they see different patients with different needs and personalities.

Important Qualities

So, how do you know if becoming a respiratory therapist is the right career move for you?

Important qualities of an effective respiratory therapist include:

  • Strong critical thinking and problem-solving skills
  • Aptitude for math, science, and technology 
  • Interested in a career helping others
  • Teamwork
  • Compassionate
  • Excellent interpersonal and communication skills
  • Detail-oriented
  • Patience
  • Composure
  • Sensitivity

Respiratory therapists should also be able to manage stressful situations and work with distressed patients. They must be able to stay on their feet for long periods and lift or turn disabled patients.

How to Become a Respiratory Therapist

The steps to becoming a respiratory therapist are: 

  • Earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy 
  • Pass the credentialing exam
  • Obtain a license to practice in your state
  • Earn additional certifications (optional)

After completing these steps, you’ll be qualified to begin working as a respiratory therapist. We’ll share more in-depth information on each of these steps below.

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Education

Respiratory therapists must have a minimum of an associate degree from an accredited respiratory therapy education program. But many respiratory therapists go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy because many employers prefer or require a bachelor’s degree, so it opens the door to more career opportunities.

Note that some bachelor’s degree programs require you to be already working as a respiratory therapist, while some allow you to start the program with no experience.

If you’d like to start with an associate degree, here are some excellent programs to consider:

School, Location, Tuition

If you’d prefer to earn a bachelor’s degree, check out these highly-ranked bachelor’s degree programs in respiratory therapy:

There’s a wide variety of programs for respiratory therapists, from online to on-campus and affordable to pricey, so look for a program that meets your needs and preferences.

What You’ll Learn:

Whether you pursue an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy, you can expect to learn about the following:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Medical terminology
  • Fundamentals of respiratory therapy and respiratory medicine
  • Diagnosing and treating cardiopulmonary diseases
  • Pharmacology for respiratory care
  • Techniques for emergencies
  • Hands-on skills through clinical rotations/clinical practicum

Certifications and Licensure

After earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy, you can take the Therapist Multiple-Choice accreditation exam through the American Association for Respiratory Care. Depending on your score, you can earn two different credentials: the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) or the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT).

If you achieve the lower cut-off score, you’ll receive the CRT, which is the basic, entry-level credential. You can then take the Clinical Simulation Examination. If you pass, you can be certified as a Registered Respiratory Therapist. Earning a higher score on the multiple-choice accreditation exam automatically grants you the Registered Respiratory Therapist credential, which means you’re recognized as achieving a high standard of excellence.

Next, you must obtain a license to practice in your state. This applies to every state except Alaska, which is currently reviewing its requirements. 

Once you’ve worked as a respiratory therapist for a while, you have the option to obtain additional certifications, including:

  • Long-term care
  • Neonatal-pediatrics
  • Surface and air transport

These certifications are not legally required, but they demonstrate your motivation to advance in your career, which can make you a more competitive job applicant. In some highly specialized fields, employers may require specific certificates.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Respiratory Therapist?

The answer to this question is simple: if you pursue an associate degree, it will take a little over two years to become a respiratory therapist. If you opt for a bachelor’s degree program, it will take a little over four years to begin working as a respiratory therapist.

When deciding between these two options, remember that some employers prefer or require a bachelor’s degree. But if you’re in a hurry to enter the workforce, you can always earn your associate degree now and go back for a bachelor’s degree later. If you find opportunities you’re happy with in the meantime, there may be no need to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Career Outlook for Respiratory Therapists

If you’re thinking about pursuing a future in respiratory therapy, you probably want to know about the career outlook for respiratory therapists.

Is it a stable, in-demand job? How much money will you earn? In this section, we’ll answer these questions – and more – to help you decide whether becoming a respiratory therapist is the right path for you.

Job Demand

Employment of respiratory therapists is expected to grow by 14% over the next ten years, which is much faster than the average for all occupations (8%). About 9,400 openings for respiratory therapists are projected each year, on average, over the decade.

Some of these openings will result from the need to replace workers who retire or transfer to other occupations. And as the older population grows, leading to an increasing prevalence of respiratory conditions, more respiratory therapists will be needed to treat these patients. Additionally, there’s a growing emphasis on reducing hospital readmission and instead providing care in outpatient facilities, which may lead to more openings for respiratory therapists in doctor’s offices and health clinics.

So, respiratory therapy is a fast-growing and in-demand field that can offer you job security.

How Much Does a Respiratory Therapist Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for respiratory therapists is $61,830. The lowest 10 percent earns less than $47,380, while the highest 10 percent earns more than $95,540.

The highest-paying states for respiratory therapists are California, Alaska, New York, Hawaii, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, New Jersey, Maryland, and Idaho. Meanwhile, the lowest-paying states for respiratory therapists are Maine, Arkansas, Rhode Island, New Mexico, and Kentucky.

Although respiratory therapy isn’t an extremely high-paying field, it offers both job security, a solid salary, and the reward of helping people live better, healthier lives.

Job Benefits 

On top of a competitive salary, respiratory therapists typically enjoy job benefits like:

  • Health insurance
  • Dental and vision insurance
  • Paid time off
  • Retirement pension plan
  • Retirement planning services
  • Tuition and professional development reimbursement
  • Relocation, retention, and annual bonuses

Of course, not all these benefits are guaranteed for every respiratory therapist position. But these are some of the benefits you might receive, and you can look for positions that offer most of the benefits on this list (or at least the ones that matter the most to you).

Pros and Cons

It’s important to weigh the pros and cons of any career path you consider. Here are some pros and cons that aspiring respiratory therapists need to know:

Pros

  • Solid salary
  • Competitive benefits
  • Rapidly growing field
  • Experiencing the reward of helping others
  • Potential travel as a traveling respiratory therapist
  • Opportunities for growth (e.g., working in a managerial position or launching your own respiratory therapy practice)

Cons

  • Working long hours on your feet
  • Exposure to infectious diseases
  • Dealing with stressful and emotionally challenging situations
  • Potentially working nights, weekends, and/or holidays
  • Bachelor’s degree is required for some opportunities 

Overall Job Satisfaction

Ultimately, your job satisfaction will depend on your personal qualities and preferences. If you enjoy hands-on work, being a team member, and helping others, you’ll likely love working as a respiratory therapist.

At the same time, you’ll need to manage the stress of life or death situations, work long shifts on your feet, and sometimes work on holidays or weekends. It can be a stressful and challenging job, but most respiratory therapists report that they find the job meaningful and are happy with their pay, two key indicators of overall job satisfaction.

According to PayScale, respiratory therapists rate their career satisfaction at 3.84 out of 5, making it a highly satisfying career. 

How to Become a Respiratory Therapist: An Overview

Working as a respiratory therapist can be a stressful and sometimes physically demanding job. But it’s a meaningful and in-demand job that offers a solid salary. If you’re compassionate, patient, and interested in healthcare and technology, then it could be a great career for you.

If that sounds like you, here’s how to become a respiratory therapist:

  • Earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy.
  • Pass the credentialing exam.
  • Obtain a license to practice in your state.
  • Earn additional certifications (optional).

Depending on whether you choose to pursue an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy, it will take either two or four years to start working in the field.

If you’re still in high school, take classes and participate in activities related to math, science, and technology to begin preparing for this career. Join a medical program if one is offered at your school, or look for volunteer or job shadowing opportunities with a respiratory therapist at a local hospital or doctor’s office. You’ll gain experience, along with an insight into whether working as a respiratory therapist is a career you’ll truly love.

If you’re interested in other options in healthcare, look into becoming a medical sonographer, a radiology technician, or an MRI technician

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