How To Become A Respiratory Therapist: A Step-By-Step Guide (2024)

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Respiratory therapists treat patients with breathing and cardiopulmonary disorders. These skilled healthcare professionals need an associate degree in respiratory therapy and a license to practice in all but one U.S. state.

Respiratory therapists can earn above-average salaries while making a major difference in their patients’ daily lives. And by requiring just an associate degree to enter the field, this profession has a lower barrier to entry than many other careers.

Use our guide to learn detailed information about becoming a respiratory therapist. We discuss the education, experience, professional certification and licensure required to work with patients and review the job outlook and salary potential for this career.

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What Is a Respiratory Therapist?

A respiratory therapist is a healthcare professional who provides therapeutic care to patients of all ages with breathing problems. They work with people with chronic conditions like asthma, premature infants with underdeveloped lungs and elderly patients suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Successful respiratory therapists understand the importance of service and excellent patient care and are compassionate, detail-oriented and good problem-solvers.

Daily Responsibilities

Day-to-day tasks for respiratory therapists vary by position, employer and specialization. Typical daily responsibilities may include:

  • Examining patients and performing tests (for example, pulmonary function tests and taking blood samples)
  • Creating treatment plans in consultation with physicians, nurses, medical assistants and other healthcare professionals
  • Treating patients using methods like chest physiotherapy or by administering drugs
  • Managing ventilators and other equipment that assist breathing
  • Documenting and tracking patients’ conditions and progress
  • Educating patients and their families on how to manage their conditions and/or use equipment

Work Environment

Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals, but some practice in skilled nursing facilities and physicians’ offices. Other work environments include home health agencies, respiratory therapy clinics, rehabilitation centers and diagnostics labs. Within hospitals, respiratory therapists work in various areas, including emergency departments, neonatal intensive care units and critical care units.

Common Challenges

Respiratory therapy can be a rewarding way to help improve patients’ lives. However, this profession may also encounter challenges. We describe some of the potential pitfalls of becoming a respiratory therapist below.

  • Stress. Respiratory therapists experience pressure from being responsible for helping people during medical emergencies. Healthcare professionals must also manage the high emotions of patients in distress.
  • Exposure to germs and illnesses. Anyone in the medical field, including respiratory therapists, risks exposure to pathogens.
  • Long hours. Depending on where you work, you may need to work night shifts, weekends, holidays or extended hours when necessary.
  • Staying current on technology. Respiratory therapists must keep up with frequent changes in respiratory healthcare technology. Equipment frequently updates, so staying educated and informed about changes takes time and effort.

How To Become a Respiratory Therapist

As skilled medical professionals, respiratory therapists must complete several steps to enter the field. Explore the education, experience, certification and licensure required to become a respiratory therapist below.

Earn a Respiratory Therapy Degree

To become a respiratory therapist, you need at least an associate degree in respiratory therapy. A typical respiratory therapy education program covers physiology, human anatomy, and respiratory care tests and procedures. In addition to classroom work, respiratory therapy students usually complete clinical hours, which provide hands-on experience working with patients.

An associate degree usually takes two years for full-time students. Some respiratory therapy programs offer accelerated paths that make it possible to graduate in less time. Of course, part-time learners usually take longer to finish their degree.

A bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy, however, can help you stand out from other job applicants, as some employers may prefer to hire respiratory therapists with an advanced degree. Most bachelor’s programs take four years for full-time students.

No matter what degree level you pursue, choose a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC). You can find out if your prospective program is accredited using CoARC’s program directory.

Degree Finder

Complete an Internship

Although you complete clinical experiences while earning your respiratory therapy degree, an internship provides additional hands-on experience in the field. Internships can also help you secure a job after graduation, as you can bolster your professional network and gain mentors through an internship.

Obtain Certification

After you earn your respiratory therapy degree, you can apply for a professional certification through the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). The two most popular certifications in the field are the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) and the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) credentials. Depending on your concentration, you may seek more specialized certification. Learn more about the certification process below.

Apply for Licensure

You need a license to practice respiratory therapy in 49 states (all of them except Alaska). All states that regulate respiratory therapy base their licensure process on whether applicants hold one of the two main respiratory therapist certifications: the CRT or the RRT. Additional licensing requirements may vary by state, so contact your state health board for details.

Respiratory Therapist Salary and Job Outlook

Your earnings as a respiratory therapist will vary depending on your education, experience, employer and specific position. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that respiratory therapists made a median annual salary of $70,540 as of May 2022.

Open positions should be plentiful in this field. The BLS projects that employment for respiratory therapists will grow at a much faster-than-average rate between 2022 and 2032, increasing by 13% during that time.

Respiratory Therapist Specializations

Respiratory therapists can specialize in various areas based on factors like patient population or work environment. Depending on your specialization, you may need to earn a specialty credential demonstrating your competency in that area.

Below are some of the different types of respiratory therapist specializations:

  • Adult critical care
  • Asthma education
  • Geriatrics
  • Home care
  • Pediatrics/neonatal
  • Pulmonary function technology
  • Sleep disorders

Certifications for Respiratory Therapists

Respiratory therapists can earn professional certifications from the NBRC to demonstrate they hold the knowledge and skills that employers require. Below, we describe the two main respiratory therapist credentials.

Certified Respiratory Therapist

To qualify for this entry-level credential, you must be 18 years old and have an associate degree in respiratory therapy from a program supported or accredited by the CoARC.

The Therapist Multiple-Choice (TMC) exam offers a low-cut score and a high-cut score. To receive the CRT credential, you must earn at least the low cut score.

The three-hour, multiple-choice test costs $190 for new applicants.

Registered Respiratory Therapist

The RRT is considered the “standard of excellence” for respiratory care professionals. To qualify, you must be at least 18 years old and have an associate degree in respiratory therapy from a program supported or accredited by the CoARC. You also must be a CRT and earn a high-cut score on the TMC exam.

Next, you must pass the four-hour Clinical Simulation Exam (CSE), which costs $200. AARC members can receive a one-time $40 discount on the CSE.

NBRC also offers other specialized certifications open to respiratory therapists, including:

  • Adult Critical Care Specialty
  • Asthma Educator Specialist
  • Certified Pulmonary Function Technologist
  • Neonatal/Pediatric Specialty
  • Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist
  • Sleep Disorders Specialty

Professional Organizations for Respiratory Therapists

American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC): As one of the main professional organizations for respiratory care professionals, AARC advocates for the profession and the advancement of respiratory care science. Members can access professional tools and resources, a networking platform, continuing education and job opportunities.

The National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC): NBRC provides credentials to respiratory care professionals who demonstrate competency in respiratory care. The organization advocates for high standards of care in the profession.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About How to Become a Respiratory Therapist

Is becoming a respiratory therapist difficult?

Becoming a respiratory therapist requires time and effort. However, compared to many healthcare professions, it has a lower barrier to entry. You can qualify for certification and licensure after earning an associate degree in respiratory therapy, whereas many other career paths require at least a four-year degree.

What is the highest degree for a respiratory therapist?

In general, the highest degree for a respiratory therapist is a master’s degree in respiratory therapy. However, a student recently graduated with the world’s first Ph.D. in respiratory therapy.

Is there a lot of math in respiratory therapy?

You don’t need to be an expert mathematician to become a respiratory therapist. However, respiratory therapy requires basic mathematical aptitude to properly use medical equipment, perform calculations and read diagnostic results.

How To Become A Respiratory Therapist: A Step-By-Step Guide (2024)

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