GUIDE
February 23, 2021
How to Become a Respiratory Therapist
Kathleen Gaines
By: Kathleen Gaines MSN, RN, BA, CBC

By: Kathleen Gaines MSN, BA, RN, CBC

Respiratory therapists (RT) are specially trained medical providers that assist medical doctors and registered nurses with the care of patients suffering from respiratory and cardiac illnesses. RTs are involved with the treatment, medical management, education, and wellness promotion of patients’ suffering from diseases related to the respiratory system. 

The U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks respiratory therapists as one of the best jobs for individuals interested in the medical field. Currently, it is ranked #22 in Best Health Care Jobs and #57 in the 100 Best Jobs. This is a hot field and with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, respiratory therapists are playing a vital role!

In this guide, we’ll explain what a Respiratory Therapist does, how to become one, how much they make, and more. 

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Part One What is a Respiratory Therapist?

A respiratory therapist is a certified medical professional who specializes in providing healthcare for a patient’s lungs. 

Respiratory therapists help patients suffering from a number of breathing or airway problems including:

  1. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease)
  2. Asthma
  3. Chronic bronchitis
  4. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  5. Novel coronavirus (COVID-19)
  6. Cystic Fibrous (CF)
  7. Emphysema
  8. Influenza
  9. Lung cancer
  10. Lung trauma
  11. Mesothelioma
  12. Parkinson’s disease
  13. Pertussis
  14. Pleural Effusion
  15. Pneumonia
  16. Pneumothorax
  17. Pulmonary fibrosis 
  18. Pulmonary Hypertension
  19. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
  20. Sarcoidosis
  21. Sleep Apnea
  22. Spinal muscular dystrophy
  23. Tuberculosis (TB)

Part Two What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

Respiratory therapists perform a variety of duties in their day-to-day work. This will vary depending on the location of employment but essentially respiratory therapists are responsible for caring for the respiratory system of patients.

Specific job responsibilities may include performing arterial and venous blood gases, assisting with intubation of patients, performing pulmonary function tests, educating patients on asthma, smoking cessation, and other lung-related diseases.

Some duties of an RT include: 

  1. Analyzing breath, tissue, and blood specimens to determine levels of oxygen and other gases.
  2. Assessing patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders.
  3. Caring for patients on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO)
  4. Diagnosing lung and breathing disorders and recommending treatment methods.
  5. Documenting care by updating charts and records
  6. Educating patients and families about lung disease.
  7. Interviewing patients and doing chest physical exams to determine what kind of therapy is best for their condition.
  8. Managing ventilators and artificial airway devices.
  9. Performing diagnostic tests, such as measuring lung capacity.
  10. Teaching patients how to take medications and use equipment.

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Part Three Respiratory Therapist Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for a respiratory therapist in 2020 is $62,810 per year or $30.20 per hour, but conditions in your area may vary.

The lowest 10 percent earned less than $44,850, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $86,980

Payscale.com reports an average annual salary of $56,712 or $27.14 per hour. 

Respiratory Therapist Pay by Level of Experience

According to Payscale, respiratory therapists can earn a higher annual salary with increased years of experience.

  1. Less than 1 year of experience earn an average hourly wage of $23.63
  2. 1-4 years of experience earn an average hourly wage of $24.76
  3. 5-9 years of experience earns an average hourly wage of $26.98
  4. 10-19 years of experience earns an average hourly wage of $29.01
  5. 20 years and higher years of experience earns an average hourly wage of $31.00

Highest Paying States for Respiratory Therapists

Currently, the highest average paid states for respiratory therapists that have reported salaries, according to payscale.com are as follows:

  1. Los Angeles, California - $30.88/hour
  2. San Diego, California - $34.31/hour
  3. New York, New York - $36.88/hour
  4. Chicago, Illinois - $28.56/hour
  5. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - $31.33/hr

Part Four How Do You Become a Respiratory Therapist?

Step 1: Earn an Undergraduate Degree 

Respiratory therapists must have a minimum of an associate degree from an accredited respiratory therapy education program by the Commission on Accreditation of Respiratory Care

Most decide to earn a bachelor’s degree because it provides greater job opportunities and career opportunities. Bachelor’s programs should include specific coursework in clinical respiratory care, procedures, pharmacology, pathophysiology, mechanical ventilation, and advanced respiratory theory.

Step 2: Become Certified

The NBRC offers the following credentials that are considered to be the standards for licensure.

  • Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT)
  • Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT)

Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT)

According to the National Board for Respiratory Care, individuals who earn the CRT credential have obtained sufficient clinical skills through the education program from which they graduated and sufficient knowledge mastery to provide competent respiratory care at entry into practice. 

Most CRTs are employed in medical-practice settings such as inpatient hospitals; some CRTs are employed in outpatient clinics, free-standing diagnostic centers, and device manufacturing. 

In order to become a CRT, you’ll need to take and pass a certification exam.

Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT)

CTRs and RRTs take the same exam, but RRTs have demonstrated a higher level of proficiency by achieving a higher score and through additional evaluation of knowledge about facilitating the care of patients with a variety of needs. 

RRTs is the highest level of certification for respiratory therapists. Professionals who earn the RRT designation have obtained sufficient clinical skills through the education program from which they graduated and sufficient knowledge mastery to provide competent respiratory care.

Step 3: Apply for a State-Specific License

After passing national certification, it is essential to apply for a state-specific respiratory therapist license. Every state in the U.S. except for Alaska requires licensure for respiratory care practitioners. While a state-specific license is not required, individuals must still graduate from an accredited respiratory therapy program. 

Part Five Respiratory Therapist Programs

As we mentioned earlier, at a minimum, respiratory therapists need to earn an associate’s degree.  But a bachelor’s degree is also recommended. No matter which route you choose, you’ll want to make sure you pick an accredited respiratory therapy program.

Accreditation

Accreditation ensures that respiratory educational programs prepare competent respiratory therapists for practice, education, research, and service. 

The purpose of accreditation is to focus on the same standards and criteria across all nursing programs. This ensures that there is some level of sameness within the programs. 

The accreditation process ultimately improves the quality of respiratory education and keeps the curriculum up to date on current trends in advances in nursing and healthcare. Accreditation continues to further the profession and enhances the overall care provided by respiratory therapists.

What You’ll Learn in a Respiratory Therapist Program

All accredited programs include specified respiratory care content to include curriculum that covers:

  • Care of the adult, pediatric, and newborn patient
  • Provision of healthcare services to patients with transmissible diseases
  • Community respiratory health
  • Fundamental principles of evaluating current scientific literature
  • Disease management
  • Health promotion
  • Legal and ethical aspects of respiratory care practice

Part Six Where Do Respiratory Therapists Work?

Respiratory Therapists can work in a variety of settings, including inpatient and outpatient healthcare environments. According to the Mayo Clinic, 75% of all respiratory therapists work in hospitals. More specifically, RTs can also work in the following locations,

  • Academia
  • Air transport 
  • Ambulance programs
  • Asthma education program
  • Cardiopulmonary diagnostic labs
  • Cardiopulmonary rehabilitation centers
  • Community health centers
  • Correctional institutions
  • County health departments
  • Device Manufacturing
  • Government facilities
  • Insurance companies
  • International medical relief organizations
  • Medical offices
  • Nonprofit organization
  • Nurse-managed medical center
  • Nursing homes
  • Occupational health centers
  • Outpatient surgery centers
  • Outreach centers
  • Phone triage centers
  • Private duty
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Rural health centers
  • Sleep laboratories
  • Smoking cessation programs
  • Urgent care centers

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Part Seven What is the Career Outlook for a Respiratory Therapist?

Respiratory therapists are in high demand, making it a great career to get into. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for respiratory therapists is projected to grow 19% from 2019 to 2029. This is exceptionally faster than other professions. There is expected to be a need for an additional 26,300 RTs by 2029. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that there are 16 million adults in the U.S. living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. As of 2020, all baby boomers will be at least 55 and more susceptible to COPD, pneumonia, as well as other medical conditions that affect breathing. 

Healthcare systems need RTs in order to function properly. Respiratory therapists will continue to be in great demand!  

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Part Eight Continuing Education Requirements for a Respiratory Therapist

RTs are required to renew their national certification and state licensure. Specific time and continuing education requirements will be dependent on the state. 

The American Association for Respiratory Therapists has an excellent website with information regarding the renewal specifics for each state. Check it out here!

All continuing education hours must be earned through an approved provider. State licensing boards often recognize the following organizations:

  • Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education
  • American Academy of Sleep Medicine
  • American Association for Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation
  • American College of Cardiology
  • American College of Chest Physicians
  • American Heart Association
  • American Lung Association
  • American Medical Association
  • American Nurses Association
  • American Society of Anesthesiologists
  • American Thoracic Society
  • National Society for Cardiopulmonary Technologists
  • NBRC Advanced certification (Adult Critical Care Specialist, Neonatal/Pediatric Respiratory Care Specialist, Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist, Sleep Disorders Testing and Therapeutic Intervention Respiratory Care)
  • Programs accredited by the American Association for Respiratory Care

Part Nine Resources for Respiratory Therapists

  1. American Association for Respiratory Therapists
  2. American Lung Association
  3. American Respiratory Care Foundation
  4. American Thoracic Society
  5. Association of Asthma Educators
  6. Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care
  7. The National Board for Respiratory Care

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Part Ten FAQs About Respiratory Therapists

  • How much schooling do you need to be a respiratory therapist?

    • At a minimum, respiratory therapists are required to obtain an associate’s degree which can be completed in as little as two years if done full time. Obtaining the recommended bachelor’s degree will take roughly four years. If an individual decides to complete their degree on a part-time basis, it will take longer. 
  • Do respiratory therapists make good money?

    • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for a respiratory therapist in 2019 is $61,330 per year or $29.48 per hour, but conditions in your area may vary. 
  • Is a respiratory therapist a good career?

    • Being a respiratory therapist is a great job and also very in demand. RTs have the flexibility to work in a variety of locations full time, party time, and/or per diem. Respiratory therapists are consistently ranked at the top in the U.S. News & World Report best healthcare jobs. In 2021, it was reported #22 on the list. 

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