What is involved in a respiratory therapist career? The answer may surprise you and lead to a fascinating and rewarding new career in a rapidly growing sector of the medical careers field. These professionals carry out a doctor’s instructions in the care of patients of all types and ages. They don’t simply follow orders, however; they must exercise a lot of independent judgment in carrying out their duties, which run the gamut from interviewing patients, assessing their conditions, and drawing blood and running diagnostic tests, to administering therapeutic oxygen-breathing treatments. They must regularly monitor their patients’ conditions, and when a patient is having a difficult time breathing as a result of excess mucus in the lungs, the respiratory therapist often provides chest physiotherapy. This is done by putting patients in positions that help their lungs drain more effectively while avoiding mucus buildup. Then the respiratory therapist vibrates the patient’s rib cage by tapping on the chest and prompting the patient to cough.
If you choose to be a respiratory therapist working in a hospital, you’ll occasionally be called on to complete tasks not normally considered to fall within your job description. For example, you might be involved with pulmonary rehabilitation, counseling patients who are attempting to stop smoking, or with polysomnography, which is the diagnosis of various sleep disorders like apnea. You may also find yourself treating critical-care patients as a member of either a surface- or air-transport unit. In a hospital setting, a respiratory therapist career can be fluid and dynamic.
Not all therapists work in hospital settings; many can be found in home care, where they make sure patients and their families have an adequate understanding of their diseases and medications. They also teach patients how to properly use ventilators and other equipment critical to their well-being. They frequently perform in-home visits and inspections, cleaning equipment and checking to make sure it functions properly. When something goes wrong with a piece of equipment, they make emergency visits.
Respiratory therapists work 30 to 40 hours a week, but because hospitals are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the therapist may be required to work evenings, nights, or weekends. In addition, they may spend quite a lot of time on their feet as they walk between patient rooms. When an emergency arises, the job can be stressful, but training and experience allow them to perform well regardless of what’s going on around them. Working with gases under pressure and exposure to communicable disease are risks, but knowledge of how to deal with and minimize such potential hazards are strong focuses of education and training.
In order to become a respiratory therapist, you’ll need to have at least an associate’s degree. However, for those serious about advancing in this field, a bachelor’s degree or higher is increasingly the standard. Therapists must be licensed in every state except Alaska and Hawaii. There are a number of institutions that offer respiratory therapy programs, such as colleges, medical schools, and the armed forces, with most programs leading to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Coursework typically covers science- and biology-heavy topics like physiology, chemistry, microbiology, and a whole host of clinical issues related to diagnostics, equipment, and record keeping. In addition, getting licensed depends largely on passing the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) exam or the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) exam, which is a requirement for most supervisory jobs and intensive-care positions.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts high growth for this field, which should almost guarantee excellent job opportunities. In the near term, respiratory therapists could see increased employment of up to 21% from higher demand as a result of the increasing number of elderly patients suffering from cardiopulmonary diseases such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and emphysema, along with expanding opportunities in case management and disease prevention. Most people working full time in a respiratory therapist career can expect to earn a salary of about $35,000 to $60,000 a year, with those with more experience and advanced training making the most.
A respiratory therapist career looks to be one of the fastest growing, most rewarding medical services professions for some time to come. For those individuals with the talent, skills, and dedication to pursue excellence in serving patients with breathing difficulties, the outlook for growth in respiratory therapist jobs and salaries is excellent in the near future.