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What does an Respiratory Therapist do?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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A respiratory therapist is an indispensable part of the health care team, both in hospital and in home care settings. His or her primary goal is to help a patient improve his ability to breathe comfortably, through a variety of medications, extensive equipment and through training or education of patients. There are diverse fields into which the respiratory therapist can enter, with most being employed by hospitals for in-hospital care. Many other therapists of this type may work in home care settings to help set up, maintain, and instruct people on using needed equipment or medications.

There are actually two types of jobs that use this title, and at minimum, a therapist of this type will have an associate degree, at least two years of college training in their field, prior to being employable. After completing an associate degree, the person takes an examination to become a certified respiratory therapist (CRT). This exam may also be taken if the therapist completes four years of college. The next level up in this field is further education, and two more examinations, usually taken after receiving a four-year degree.

When these exams are passed, the CRT becomes a registered respiratory therapist (RRT). RRTs may be preferred as employees in hospital settings since they have more proven skill and knowledge in their field. Additionally, they have higher earning potential than do CRTs.

As healthcare workers, CRTs and RRTs work as both diagnosticians and practitioners. When a person exhibits breathing difficulties, the therapist, usually in concert or under the supervision of a physician, first must diagnose the problem. He or she may obtain samples of sputum, analyze oxygen levels in blood work, evaluate X-rays, and perform a variety of tests to understand the degree of pulmonary impairment. Some work in sleep study clinics to observe and diagnose sleep apnea.

Once a problem is identified, the respiratory professional sets to work to solve the issue through a variety of interventions. These may include respiratory support, such as administering oxygen, asthma medications or recommending intubation (breathing tubes) for patients who cannot breathe on their own. As a patient improves, CRTS and RRTS continue to analyze the effectiveness of intervention strategies and may make changes or help to decide when patients can have breathing tubes removed. They also may instruct patients in simple breathing exercises, encourage people to cease smoking, and help patients make the transition from hospital care to home care when needed.

Some CRTS and RRTs work primarily with medical supply companies to help patients set up and learn to use equipment like ventilators, oxygen, and sleep apnea machines in the home setting. They train both patients and family members as needed on the use of this equipment and are often available to answer questions or to help troubleshoot problems that may occur with equipment use. They may be responsible for writing reports on equipment supplied to patients and order of additional needed equipment for medical supply companies.

Respiratory therapy is a growing field, with significant demand for trained professionals. People considering this career should study the basic sciences in high school, particularly chemistry, biology and anatomy, and should learn excellent people skills. Working and communicating with patients is an expected part of the job, and people adept at clear communication and who excel at listening carefully to patients will greatly enhance their performance in this field.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon1001064 — On Feb 26, 2019

I was a respiratory therapist for 20 years and one thing people need to know is that an RT has to cover every corner of the hospital, from the ICU to the ER to the NICU and every other place in the building, any where a code blue is. You also have to do anything from just giving oxygen to inserting a-lines to intubations to changing trachs, so be sure you can handle extensive trauma, and seeing people die frequently, but saving lives trumps all the bad stuff you have to deal with.

By anon349613 — On Sep 27, 2013

People are posting CRT's and RRTs as two working entities. CRT's are only a few. CRTs are leftovers from a time when the two entities were accepted. This is no longer the case. In order to become a respiratory therapist, you need to graduate from an accredited respiratory therapy program. After that, you need to take a certification exam known as the CRT. The CRT enables the state to license you to practice as a respiratory therapist.

After that, in order to maintain employment and a license, you must take the registered respiratory therapist exam. After that, you need to continue with ongoing education known as CEU's. And in some cases, you need to retake the registry exam every four years. This is a little bit of overkill from a pretentious overseeing organization called the American Association for Respiratory Care.

By the way, there is another organization called The National Board for Respiratory Care. Sadly one of the prominent leaders in the profession stated at the Mass Society for Respiratory Care in 2011 that the profession was full of uneducated people. He further went on to state it was not a profession. He also stated he would not even allow his own children to enter the field.

In summary, the field is always in conflict with itself and loaded with a group of pretentious people.

By anon214190 — On Sep 14, 2011

I've been an RRT for five years now, currently working for Baylor Hospitals and RRT is becoming a requirement at a minimum and a BS is preferred, but now the BS can be in business etc.

But I have never had a hard time finding employment in Texas. I've worked in Lubbock UMC, OR Covenant Medical Center. The job outlook is great. You can specialize in NICU, PICU,or Adult Critical Care, just FYI.

By googlefanz — On Jan 13, 2011

Hey -- one thing you might want to consider before you go into getting your respiratory therapist certification is the other things that you can do with similar education, just in case you don't immediately get employment after you graduate.

After all, you don't want to go through all that respiratory therapist education and then end up working at Starbucks!

I'm not trying to rain on your parade; it's just something that I wish I had thought of before I went to college, got a degree, and then ended up waiting tables for a year before I could get a job in my field.

Oh, and the internship thing is a great idea -- try to be a respiratory therapist assistant for a while, even if you have to do it for free, just to get the work experience. It is a lifesaver when it comes to personal marketability.

By closerfan12 — On Jan 11, 2011

@yournamehere -- My sister is a respiratory therapist, and she really loves what she does. She got her certification after an undergraduate degree, like you say you want to do, and she just went to out local college to get it, so I don't know if there are really any respiratory therapist schools per se that I can recommend you.

However, one thing that my sis did say was that she learned more from her time as a respiratory therapist technician assistant in her internship than in all of her official education.

You may want to look around at local hospitals and clinics to see if they offer any internships. That can give you much better insight into the job, and can also really help you in terms of having work experience when you get out.

Hope this helps, good luck with your respiratory therapist career!

By yournamehere — On Jan 10, 2011

Hi -- I am about to graduate from high school and was wondering if someone could give me some more insight into what exactly is involved in getting a respiratory therapist degree, as well as what the job itself is like.

Although I am still deciding exactly what kind of job I would like to do, I recently read an article about how many respiratory therapist jobs there are coming onto the market, and it seems like that would be a good prospect for me.

I am in the math/science track at my school, and have a fairly decent GPA, so I think that I could get into a fair amount of respiratory therapist programs, but there again, I really don't know what schools are good for respiratory therapist training. Can anybody clue me in?

I would like to get my undergraduate degree rather than an associate's degree, just to help you narrow it down.

So, any respiratory therapists out there that can help me out?

By anon22255 — On Nov 30, 2008

Most RRTs have an associates degree. CRTs have to have an associates degree. RRTs do not have to have a four year degree, but if they want to be in management, then a RRT with a BS in Respiratory or Healthcare is preferred. I work in Colorado and only one hospital requires an RRT to work at their hospital (University of Colorado Hospital). Everyone else will allow CRTs to work mostly everywhere in the hospital. Please look into your references and contact schools around the country about CRT vs RRT. It seems that your information is incorrect (in the west at least).

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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