Respiratory therapists, also known as respiratory care practitioners, evaluate, treat and care for patients with breathing or other heart/lung disorders. These health professionals work with all types of patients, from premature infants whose lungs are not fully developed, to elderly patients with chronic lung disease. Therapists work under the direction of a physician and work directly with the patient to conduct tests such as measuring lung capacity or measuring a patient’s oxygen, carbon dioxide and pH levels. Physicians rely on the data provided to make treatment decisions.
Respiratory therapists work closely with physicians and nurses in critical care areas and emergency departments. They also serve as team members during air transport of critically ill patients, according to Jay Snyder, director of a hospital respiratory care department. “The respiratory therapist is trained in advanced cardiopulmonary physiology. And oftentimes in illnesses, those two areas of the body are the first to be implicated in an illness. Patients who have pneumonia or cardiac failutre, or have complications post-operatively, often require cardiac and pulmonary intervention.” Respiratory therapists also care for patients on life support, which requires considerable independent judgment.
Other areas of practice include providing therapy to patients with asthma and emphysema, home asthma prevention and awareness, pulmonary rehabilitation, and sleep diagnostics and treatment.
- General hospitals
- Long-term care facilities
- Physician offices
- Home health agencies
Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals, and there they spend most of their day standing and walking between patient rooms and hospital departments. According to respiratory care practitioner, Kayla Kontras, “It’s a lot of walking. I’m throughout the hospital every day. So, if you’re a sedentary person, it’s not really the job for you. I could get a call from the ER and it’s on the other end of the hospital. Then you get a call on the 6th floor. You have to be excited and ready to go.” Respiratory therapists employed in home healthcare must travel frequently to patients’ homes.
The work schedule is generally 35 to 40 hours per week. Because hospitals operate around the clock, therapists can work days, evenings, nights or weekends. Working with oxygen, stored under pressure, means therapists must adhere to oxygen safety precautions. They must also observe strict infection control standards to protect themselves as well as patients.
Employment of respiratory therapists is expected to increase 21 percent through the year 2018, faster than the average for all occupations. Increased demand will come from the growth in the middle-aged and elderly population, those with a higher incidence of cardiopulmonary disease. The elderly also suffer most from respiratory conditions such as pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and heart disease. In addition, advances in the treatment of lung transplant patients, heart attack victims, accident victims and premature infants – patients who often depend on a ventilator for part of their treatment – will increase the demand for respiratory care practitioners.
- Ability to work with a variety of people
- Good communication skills
- Critical thinking skills
- Ability to learn principles and techniques of respiratory therapy
- Ability to carry out a variety of tasks, work according to set standards, and make decisions based on data and assessment
- Good manual dexterity, space and form perception
- Good numerical skills
Educational programs range in length from 18 months to four years and lead to an associate or bachelor’s degree. All programs of study include classroom coursework and significant clinical experience. With additional training and experience, therapists can attain respiratory care practitioner or advanced practictioner status.
Respiratory therapists must be licensed by the State. Licensure requires completion of an entry-level or advanced level program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs or the Committee on Accreditation for Respiratory Care, and also pass the licensure examination.
Programs in Nebraska
- Alegent Health/Midland Lutheran College – Omaha (Bachelor’s)
- Metropolitan Community College – Omaha (Associate)
- Midland Lutheran College – Fremont (Bachelor’s)
- Nebraska Methodist College – Omaha (Associate)
- Southeast Community College – Lincoln (Associate)
- University of Nebraska-Kearney (Bachelor’s)
- Wayne State College – Wayne (Bachelor’s)
Related / Links
Other careers that involve caring for, treating, or training people to improve their physical condition:
- Athletic trainer
- Occupational therapist
- Occupational therapy assistant
- Physical therapist
- Physical therapy assistant
- Radiation therapist
- Registered nurse
Other careers where practitioners work with advanced medical technology:
- Cardiac sonographer/Vascular sonographer
- Diagnostic medical sonographer
- Invasive cardiovascular technologist
- Nuclear medicine technologist
- Radiologic technologist
For more information on a career in respiratory care:
For information on accredited programs for respiratory care practitioners:
For information on gaining credentials in respiratory care:
Career information adapted in part from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handook, 2010-2011 Edition, Respiratory Therapists, on the Internet at www.bls.gov