Respiratory therapists typically do the following:
Respiratory therapists use various tests to evaluate patients. For example, therapists test lung capacity by having patients breathe into an instrument that measures the volume and flow of oxygen when they inhale and exhale. Respiratory therapists also may take blood samples and use a blood gas analyzer to test oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
Respiratory therapists perform chest physiotherapy on patients to remove mucus from their lungs and make it easier for them to breathe. Removing mucus is necessary for patients suffering from lung diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, and involves the therapist vibrating the patient’s rib cage, often by tapping the patient’s chest and encouraging him or her to cough.
Respiratory therapists may connect patients who cannot breathe on their own to ventilators that deliver oxygen to the lungs. Therapists insert a tube in the patient’s windpipe (trachea) and connect the tube to ventilator equipment. They set up and monitor the equipment to ensure that the patient is receiving the correct amount of oxygen at the correct rate.
Respiratory therapists who work in home care teach patients and their families to use ventilators and other life-support systems in their homes. During these visits, they may inspect and clean equipment, check the home for environmental hazards, and ensure that patients know how to use their medications. Therapists also make emergency home visits when necessary.
In some hospitals, respiratory therapists are involved in related areas, such as diagnosing breathing problems for people with sleep apnea and counseling people on how to stop smoking.
Respiratory therapists need at least an associate’s degree, but employers may prefer applicants who have a bachelor’s degree. Educational programs are offered by colleges and universities, vocational–technical institutes, and the Armed Forces. Completion of a program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care may be required for licensure.
Respiratory therapy programs typically include courses in human anatomy and physiology, chemistry, physics, microbiology, pharmacology, and math. Other courses deal with therapeutic and diagnostic procedures and tests, equipment, patient assessment, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). In addition to coursework, programs have clinical components that allow students to gain supervised, practical experience in treating patients.
High school students interested in applying to respiratory therapy programs should take courses in health, biology, math, chemistry, and physics.
Respiratory therapists are licensed in all states except Alaska, where national certification is recommended, although not required. Licensure requirements vary by state; for most states they include passing a state or professional certification exam. For specific state requirements, contact the state’s health board.
The National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) is the main certifying body for respiratory therapists. The Board offers two levels of certification: Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) and Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT).