What is a Respiratory Therapist?

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Respiratory therapy is best described as the assessment and treatment of patients with both acute and chronic dysfunction of the cardiopulmonary system. Today’s respiratory therapists have demanding responsibilities related to patient care and serve as vital members of the healthcare team.

Respiratory therapists must have a broad knowledge of the pathophysiology of the cardiopulmonary system and the complex procedures required to properly diagnose and treat patients, from the very young to the very old.

Where do Respiratory Therapists Work?

Respiratory therapy may include treating diseases, infections, or viruses of the cardiopulmonary system, such as lung cancer, asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, and pneumonia. RTs may also provide life-saving care to trauma patients.

Respiratory therapists may be found in acute-care hospital settings, including the emergency room, the intensive care unit, the newborn or pediatric intensive care unit, or the pulmonary diagnostics laboratory. They work with patients of all ages, from premature infants with underdeveloped lungs, to senior citizens with advanced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Outside of the hospital setting, respiratory therapists may work in pulmonary rehabilitation clinics, performing pulmonary rehabilitation. They may also counsel patients on topics such as smoking cessation and disease prevention, and they may work in home care settings, teaching patients and their families to use assistive breathing devices. They may also work out of physician offices, long-term acute and skilled nursing facilities, and sleep disorder centers, to name just a few.

The Duties Respiratory Therapists Perform

In addition to treatment, respiratory therapists are required to diagnose lung disease and breathing disorders, and then recommend the most appropriate treatment methods. As such, their work often includes examining patients, performing chest exams, and analyzing tissue specimens.

Along with having an extensive knowledge of the cardiopulmonary system, respiratory therapists must be experts in the machines and devices used to administer respiratory care treatments. This would involve managing patients on ventilators and artificial airway devices, and assessing the blood-oxygen level of patients.

Just a few of the responsibilities of respiratory therapists include:

  • Managing life support mechanical ventilation systems
  • Administering aerosol-based medications
  • Monitoring equipment related to cardiopulmonary therapy
  • Analyzing blood samples to determine levels of oxygen and other gases
  • Managing artificial airways
  • Assessing lung capacity to determine impairment
  • Analyzing chest x-rays and sputum specimens
  • Assessing vital signs
  • Performing tests and studies related to the cardiopulmonary system (e.g., examinations, stress tests, etc.)
  • Performing studies related to the cardiopulmonary system
  • Conducting rehabilitation activities
  • Counseling individuals in cardiopulmonary health (e.g., asthma education, smoking cessation, etc.)
  • Consulting with physicians and members of the medical team to recommend a change in therapy

Respiratory therapy is always practiced under medical direction. As such, respiratory therapists are always part of a medical team. Their work includes participating in:

  • The development and implementation of treatment plans and protocols
  • Health promotion activities and programs
  • Disease prevention
  • Disease management
  • Clinical decision-making
  • Patient education

Their work involves critical thinking skills, assessment skills, and advanced knowledge in evidence-based clinical practice guidelines, all of which enable them to develop and implement effective care, treatment, and disease management plans.

Entering the Respiratory Therapy Profession

The minimum requirement for entering the respiratory therapy profession is an associate’s degree, although it is quite typical for respiratory therapists to possess more advanced degrees, so as to enjoy more professional opportunities and higher pay. Advanced degrees in respiratory care, such as bachelor’s and master’s degrees, provide students with additional clinical experiences and more in-depth study in respiratory care techniques.

To work as a respiratory therapist, you must hold state licensure. To date, every state in the U.S., as well as Washington, D.C., requires state licensure to practice respiratory therapy, with the exception of Alaska.

To become licensed as a respiratory therapist, candidates must complete a respiratory therapy education program at the associate’s or bachelor’s level that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC).

All states also require candidates to earn either an entry-level Certified Respiratory Therapist—CRT credential or advanced-level Registered Respiratory Therapist—RRT credential through the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) to qualify for licensure.

Similar to other allied health professionals, licensed respiratory therapists must apply for licensure and maintain their license according to their state’s respiratory care board requirements. This usually involves the completion of specific continuing education requirements.

Characteristics of Successful Respiratory Therapists

In addition to being state licensed to practice respiratory therapy, successful respiratory therapists are those who possess the following:

  • Compassion: Compassionate respiratory therapists are able to provide emotional support to patients who are undergoing treatments for serious and often life-threatening diseases.
  • Critical thinking skills: Respiratory therapists must be able quickly solve problems, particularly in trauma or emergency situations. Therefore, the ability to think critically to provide the medical team with rapid and accurate assessments, assess patents, and provide patients with the appropriate treatment is crucial.
  • Excellent communication skills: Because respiratory therapists spend much of their time communicating with members of the medical team, with patients, or with patient families, the ability to communicate well is important.
  • Organized and meticulous: Respiratory therapists must maintain, use, and manage many types of equipment and administer many types of medications; therefore, successful respiratory therapists are detail-oriented, organized, meticulous, and thorough, ensuring that patients receive the appropriate treatments at all times.

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