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Respiratory Therapist Education Requirements and Career Overview

Aug 16, 2019

Respiratory therapists are healthcare professionals who specialize in helping patients with chronic and acute breathing issues. Respiratory therapist requirements include a respiratory therapist education program and completion of the licensure process. Read on for specifics on how to become a respiratory therapist.

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Essential Information

Respiratory therapists work with patients on issues related to breathing or the cardiopulmonary system. Patients of all ages may need care from respiratory therapists, and areas of care include chronic conditions like asthma and acute situations like heart attacks. Prospective respiratory therapists need at least an associate's degree, and some obtain a bachelor's or master's degree in order to pursue more advanced positions. Most states also require licensure in this field.

Required Education Associate's degree or higher
Other Requirements Licensure in most states
Career Outlook (2016-2026) 23% Growth*
Median Salary (2018) $60,280*

Source: *U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

How to Become a Respiratory Therapist

To begin a career as a respiratory therapist, individuals must complete an education program in the field. Programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care. In addition, most states require that respiratory therapists be licensed.

Education Requirements

Respiratory therapist education programs are available at associate's, bachelor's, and master's levels. They usually incorporate coursework, laboratory work, and hands-on experiences where students are supervised as they work with patients. Core classes cover chemistry, anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, math, and microbiology. Students also receive instruction in pulmonary care assessments, diagnostics, and procedures.

Undergraduate students in bachelor's degree programs may need to apply for admission to their school's respiratory therapy program after completing general education requirements.

Beyond a bachelor's degree, respiratory therapists may wish to pursue a master's degree. In addition to degrees specifically in respiratory therapy, programs are available in fields like health sciences with specializations in respiratory care.

Licensing Requirements

In most states, respiratory therapist requirements include obtaining licensure. Requirements vary by state, but in many states candidates must pass a certification exam. The National Board for Respiratory Care typically certifies respiratory therapists. Through this organization, candidates can choose from two levels: Certified Respiratory Therapist or Registered Respiratory Therapist. Both require a multiple choice exam, and certification as a Registered Respiratory Therapist also requires completion of a clinical simulation.

Respiratory Therapist Career Overview

Respiratory therapists work with patients to address breathing problems or issues with the cardiopulmonary system. In addition to performing exams and making diagnoses, respiratory therapists administer treatments like chest physiotherapy to improve patients' breathing. They also work with ventilators, create treatment plans in conjunction with physicians and medical assistants, and deliver patient education. Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals, and their schedules may include evening, night, and weekend hours.

Job Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that demand for respiratory therapists will grow by 23% between 2016-2026. This high growth rate is likely the result of an aging population with increasing healthcare needs, including respiratory issues like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In addition to positions in hospitals, respiratory therapists may find employment opportunities in doctor's offices and long-term nursing facilities.

Salary Information

In May 2018, the average annual wage for respiratory therapists was $62,500. Those employed by local government entities earned the most with an annual mean wage of $77,380. Other high-paying industries included outpatient care centers and higher education institutions.

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