Your Complete Guide to Becoming a Respiratory Therapist

6 minute read

One of the first questions on the mind of anyone considering a career in respiratory care is this: What type of education and certification is required to become a respiratory therapist?

The short answer is this: associate degree required; bachelor’s degree preferred. You will also need to pass the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) exam and then earn your Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) credential, which the National Board for Respiratory Care calls the “standard of excellence” for respiratory care professionals. Many successful respiratory therapists also end up pursuing a master’s degree to further expand their knowledge, skills and career opportunities.

Of course, there is much more do it than that. So before we get into all the educational and credentialing details, let’s pause and take a deep breath.

How to Become a Respiratory Therapist

Being able to breathe is one of the basic essentials of life. There are countless types and causes of breathing problems, and patients depend on respiratory therapists to improve their quality of life and help them recover.

As specialists in the field of breathing assistance and monitoring, respiratory therapists coordinate with doctors and nurses to evaluate, diagnose and treat a wide variety of breathing disorders. Their job involves helping patients who suffer from respiratory infections, chronic lung conditions such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema, cystic fibrosis and more. They may also provide emergency care to heart attack and stroke victims, or patients who’ve been in a serious accident. Patients range in age from premature infants the elderly.

A day in the life of a respiratory therapist can be as challenging as it is rewarding. Whether working in a hospital, outpatient program or home care, most therapists share similar key responsibilities. On a typical day, a respiratory therapist may:

  • Take patient histories and perform initial chest exams
  • Analyze blood oxygen and gas levels
  • Diagnose lung disorders and determine treatment methods
  • Educate patients and their families about beneficial exercises and treatments
  • Perform patient evaluations and recommend changes in therapy to attending physicians
  • Respond to sudden cardiac arrest or other emergency calls for urgent care

Respiratory is an incredibly important line of work — one that is potentially ideal for compassionate individuals interested in lung-related healthcare.

“The respiratory therapist is one of the most critical members of any health care team,” according to this video prepared by the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC).

Becoming a Respiratory Therapist: Education & Credentialing Requirements

Respiratory therapists must have a minimum of an associate degree from an accredited respiratory therapy education program, according to AARC, which says that the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC) is the organization that accredits schools of respiratory therapy.”

Most practicing respiratory therapists go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy because this opens the door to a wider variety of employment and career opportunities.

Such programs are designed to prepare students to earn respiratory therapy certifications through the National Board for Respiratory Care. The NBRC offers the following credentials that are considered to be the standards for licensure.

  • Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT)
  • Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT)

All states require licensed respiratory therapists to earn the CRT. However, there is nationwide momentum toward requiring all licensed respiratory therapists to hold the RRT credential. The NBRC also administers specialty credentials in multiple areas including:

  • Adult critical care
  • Neonatal/pediatric respiratory care
  • Pulmonary function technology
  • Sleep disorders testing

Going on to earn a master’s degree in respiratory therapy is a path followed by many experienced respiratory therapists, and AARC reports that “there are many personal and professional benefits to earning an advanced degree in respiratory therapy.” Advanced degrees can qualify respiratory therapists for such roles as disease manager, case manager or clinical specialist, and can provide a foundation to become a manager, formal educator or researcher, according to AARC.

Many employers may provide tuition assistance for employees looking to earn their bachelor’s or master’s degree in respiratory therapy. AARC also offers information on respiratory therapy scholarships and loans.

Additional career and networking strategies suggested by AARC include:

  • Get involved with your state society to meet and network others in the profession. This can include opportunities to volunteer alongside the RTs who might be decision leaders in your state or region.
  • Call the HR department at your dream job for an informational interview. This will give you an opportunity to learn more about the organization and what they are looking for in a candidate as well as introduce yourself.
  • Attend respiratory therapy conferences. These local, state and national gatherings of respiratory therapists can provide networking opportunities AND an opportunity to keep your knowledge fresh.
  • Volunteer for and attend health fairs or the Drive4COPD and other profession-specific events.

Becoming a Respiratory Therapist: Career Outlook

The U.S. is currently witnessing a boom in demand for qualified respiratory therapists, primarily due to an aging population and subpar air quality. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the rate of employment for respiratory therapists is expected to grow 23% by 2026, much faster than the overall average for all industries. The BLS also reports that the median salary for respiratory therapists is $60,280.

Respiratory therapy job titles listed recently on the American Association for Respiratory Care Job Board include the following:

  • Respiratory Therapist
  • Respiratory Therapy Technician
  • Respiratory Function Technologist
  • Health and Medical Services Manager
  • Respiratory Services Site Manager
  • Respiratory Care Practitioner
  • Pulmonary Rehabilitation Manager
  • Respiratory Therapy Supervisor
  • Life Flight Neonatal/Pediatric Respiratory Therapist
  • Assistant Professor – Respiratory Care
  • Director of Clinical Education, Respiratory Therapy

Some of these jobs require a bachelor’s or master’s degree. In fact, AARC has called for 80% of RTs to either have, or be working toward, a bachelor’s degree by 2020; and it reports that upper-level positions in management and education require graduate degrees.

AARC further examines the ways in which academic degrees help respiratory therapy professionals advance their careers in such posts as “Bachelor’s Degree Ups Marketability of RTs” and “Where Can a Master’s Degree Take You?” AARC’s bottom line: “With the right education, there is no limit to what respiratory therapists can accomplish in the larger world of health care.”

Benefits of Earning Your Respiratory Therapy Degree Online

Online degree programs can be an excellent option for working respiratory therapists, as well as those aspiring to a career in this field. For example, the University of Cincinnati’s online BS in Respiratory Therapy program prepares professional Certified Respiratory Therapists (CRTs) and Registered Respiratory Therapists (RRTs) for career advancement including management opportunities, graduate school and advanced clinical practice.

With a robust curriculum that focuses on advancing respiratory therapy practice and research, the program is designed to help you elevate your clinical skills to the next level and develop a deeper understanding of advanced health care operations, logistics, technology, leadership, ethics and project management.

For more information about how a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in respiratory therapy can help you achieve your career goals, contact a University of Cincinnati enrollment advisor.

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