Online Associates Degree in Respiratory Therapy: Program Overview

Get info about online associate's degree programs in respiratory therapy. Read about program requirements, course topics and degree levels, and check out career and continuing education options.

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Essential Information

Online associate's degree programs for aspiring respiratory therapists are available. Because respiratory therapy is a hands-on field, most programs require completion of an in-person clinical practicum. Respiratory therapists need either an associate's or a bachelor's degree, and are required to be licensed in all states except Alaska. Licensing requirements vary by state; aspiring respiratory therapists should contact the health board of the state in which they intend to work before choosing an educational program. Students applying to these programs may need to produce CPR certification, proof of completion of certain science courses, and hold a minimum GPA before admittance.

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Associate's Degree in Respiratory Therapy

Graduates of a program leading to an Associate of Science, or Associate of Applied Science in Respiratory Therapy, are trained in respiratory care techniques and skills. These skills include patient evaluation, comprehensive patient care, renal and cardiopulmonary anatomy and physiology, pharmacology concepts, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, equipment usage and laboratory analysis procedures. Graduates are prepared to sit for the primary certification examination administered by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC).

Applicants must hold a high school diploma or GED. Prerequisite courses can include human anatomy, microbiology, physics, chemistry and medical terminology, often with a certain minimum GPA. Some programs also require that the applicant hold a current CPR qualification.

Program Information and Requirements

Depending on the school, an online degree program can take between 18-24 months to complete. Courses are delivered online by way of an Internet-based communication system, such as Blackboard or WebAdvisor. Assignments are completed and submitted online.

There is a clinical component to the program. This must be completed face-to-face at a pre-approved clinical facility near the student's home. In some cases, distance-learning students must also complete an in-person orientation period or workshop before classes begin.

Course Topics

General education courses are required in addition to respiratory care courses. These general education requirements typically include courses in oral communication, mathematics, science, written communication and the social sciences. In some cases, students must achieve a GPA of 2.75 in the program's general education component.

Anatomy and Physiology

Various aspects of the cardiopulmonary system are studied in this course. Students learn about ventilation, anatomy, oxygen and carbon dioxide transportation, hemodynamic measurements, and the diffusion of pulmonary gasses.


Dose calculation, proper administration and possible side effects of drugs on the autonomic nervous system and cardiorespiratory system are the focal points of this course.


This course covers the fundamentals of cardiopulmonary diseases. Students study pathology, clinical manifestations, lab and radiological investigations, diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, etiology and disease prevention.

Critical Care

This course emphasizes critical care patient assessment and monitoring, helping students to develop the critical thinking skills used in determining alternative therapies. Various problem solving procedures involving advanced cardiac life support (ACLS) are also examined.

Respiratory Care

A variety of theories and practices of respiratory functions and therapies are explored in this course. Subjects include bronchial pulmonary hygiene techniques, airway management, equipment use and application, lung volume expansion therapy, medical gas and aerosol therapy.

Career Information

Associate's degree holders can find employment in an entry-level position, although some employers prefer applicants to have earned a bachelor's degree. Typically, respiratory therapists work in hospitals, physician's offices, respiratory equipment companies, nursing care facilities or home healthcare companies.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job opportunities for respiratory therapists are expected to increase by 12%, faster than the average for all occupations, between the years 2014 and 2024 (www.bls.gov). As of May 2015, the BLS reported that the national median salary for respiratory therapists was $57,790.

Continuing Education Information

On campus and online bachelor's degrees and master's degrees are available in the field of respiratory therapy. Degrees above the associate's level enhance the employability of a respiratory therapist and are usually important for advancement in the profession.

In its 2014-2015 Occupational Outlook Handbook, the BLS stated that with the exception of Hawaii and Alaska, all states require respiratory therapists to be licensed. Licensure is largely based on passing the written Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) certification exam offered by the NBRC (www.bls.gov).

Once the CRT designation has been awarded, graduates may sit for the more advanced Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) exam, which consists of written and clinical simulation portions. Students are required to take both exams within three years of graduation or they must retake the CRT exam.

Continuing education credits, career assistance and professional development courses are available through such organizations as the American Association for Respiratory Care. The NBRC provides information on certification examinations and state licensure.

Associate's degree programs in respiratory therapy teach students the science of the respiratory system and its care, as well as how to respond to and treat patients. These degrees can be found online, though the hands-on nature of the program means that some in-person clinical experience may be required.

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