Is Respiratory Therapy a Good Career?
Have you ever thought about pursuing a career in respiratory therapy? Like other allied health careers, becoming a registered respiratory therapist can make you an in-demand health professional.
If you’re considering a career in respiratory therapy, take time to learn as much as you can about the job to determine whether it’s a good fit for you. Here are the answers to four common questions to help you get started.
What is respiratory therapy?
Respiratory therapy is a healthcare field dedicated to assessing and treating patients with cardiopulmonary dysfunctions, or diseases of the lungs and heart. Those problems could include diseases, infections or viruses of the respiratory system, such as lung cancer, asthma, emphysema, bronchitis and pneumonia. Respiratory therapists also can provide live-saving care to patients who have suffered trauma.
Respiratory therapy is always directed by physicians, and respiratory therapists work as part of a medical team. They may help diagnose lung disease and breathing disorders and recommend appropriate treatments. They do this by examining patients, performing chest exams and analyzing tissue samples.
In addition to diagnosing and treating respiratory illnesses, respiratory therapists may also monitor equipment such as ventilators, assess vital signs, perform tests such as stress tests, and lead patients in rehabilitation activities. They also may counsel with patients about their conditions and healthcare, such as discussing how to stop smoking or how to manage asthma.
How do you become a respiratory therapist?
To become a respiratory therapist, you must earn at least an associate’s degree. Some respiratory therapists earn more advanced degrees, which may increase their earning power.
Earning a degree in respiratory therapy requires students to learn all about the cardiopulmonary system and the procedures used in diagnosing and treating patients of all ages. In addition to understanding how the body’s cardiopulmonary system works, respiratory therapy students also learn about the machines and devices used to administer treatments in respiratory care. Those include ventilators and artificial airway devices, as well as tools used in assessing patients’ blood-oxygen level.
To practice as a respiratory therapist, you must obtain a state license in every state except Alaska. To maintain that licensure, respiratory therapists are required to complete continuing medical education hours on an annual basis.
How does respiratory therapy compare to nursing?
While nurses and respiratory therapists both work as part of a healthcare team, the two careers are distinct. Nurses must have broader knowledge of all the systems of the body and are able to specialize in a wide variety of types of healthcare. They are responsible for head-to-toe assessment and must monitor a patient’s condition, medications and patient education, along with communicating with patients and their families, doctors, pharmacists and other team members.
Respiratory therapists, on the other hand, have more specialized knowledge focused only on cardiopulmonary medicine. They are not responsible for the head-to-toe care of the patient and their assessment and treatment of patients is limited to the cardiopulmonary system.
As healthcare becomes increasingly specialized, respiratory therapists are locked into a specialty that is in demand. Nurses, on the other hand, are able to work in a variety of different types of care and can choose to specialize in a number of areas.
The occupational outlook for both nurses and respiratory therapists is strong. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurse employment is expected to grow 15 percent by 2026, which is significantly faster than average occupational growth. Respiratory therapist employment is expected to increase 23 percent by 2026, even faster.
Where do respiratory therapists work?
Most respiratory therapists work in hospital settings. They may be found in the emergency department, intensive care unit, the pediatric intensive care unit or the pulmonary diagnostics laboratory. Patients of all ages—from newborns with underdeveloped lungs to older adults with cardiopulmonary diseases—need respiratory therapy.
Some respiratory therapists work outside the hospital setting, in areas such as pulmonary rehabilitation clinics, home health care, long-term care facilities or sleep disorder centers. In these locations, respiratory therapists continue to provide the same types of care that they would provide in the hospital, educating patients about how to use assistive breathing devices, monitoring and assessing patients, and providing necessary treatments and therapies. If you are already a respiratory therapist check out our jobs page to find your next respiratory therapy assignment!