What is a Respiratory Therapist?

Male and female student working on infant mannequin, practicing respiratory therapy procedure.

The respiratory therapist treats people with disorders affecting the cardiopulmonary system such as asthma, emphysema, pneumonia, cardiovascular disorders, and trauma. In the hospital setting, the respiratory therapist provides care and life support to patients in the emergency room, intensive care units, general hospital areas, the pulmonary diagnostics laboratory and other specialty areas such as rehabilitation.

While on the job, the RT will diagnose lung and breathing disorders and recommend treatment methods. They will interview patients, peform chest exams and analyze tissue specimens. Managing ventilators and artificial airway devices for patients who can’t breathe normally on their own is also a primary responsibility of these professionals. The respiratory therapist may play a prominent role in responding to Code Blue or other urgent calls for care in the emergency room.

Responsibilities for the modern respiratory therapist are varied and demanding, from complex diagnostic procedures to supervision of respiratory technicians and equipment. For example, the RT may test a patient’s breathing capacity and determine the concentration of oxygen and other gases in a patient’s blood. Or, they may teach patients and their families to use ventilators and other life-support systems in the home. The RT consults with physicians and other healthcare staff to develop and adjust patient care plans. In some hospitals, therapists perform tasks that fall outside their traditional role: pulmonary rehabilitation, smoking cessation counseling, disease prevention and case management.

Patients receiving care from a therapist range in age from the premature infant to the eldest of the elderly. The respiratory professional is also involved in the diagnostic testing of infants, children and adults with varying medical problems including cardiopulmonary diseases and sleep disorders. The AARC web site can provide additional information on the respiratory care profession. .

Students in KU's Respiratory Care program are eligible to sit for the CRT exam during the fall semester of their senior year. They are eligible to sit for the registry exam approximately one month after graduation. See Admissions for more information on the baccalaureate degree program at the University of Kansas Medical Center..

images of respiratory care students

Entering the profession

Students with strong math skills are best prepared to succeed in respiratory care. Work in this field involves working with patients and other clinicians; it's definitely not a "desk job" and not "behind the scenes" in a laboratory environment. Repiratory therapists use high-tech equipment and the latest medical techniques to help patients in a variety of situations.

Respiratory therapists may enter the field — and earn the required license to practice — with an Associate’s Degree, a Bachelor’s Degree, or even a Master’s Degree from a post-graduate program. Associate of Science in Respiratory Therapy programs are available from community colleges, but opportunities for advancement in the field are very limited as these degrees require fewer classes and the study is not as advanced as a 4-year degree.

KU's Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Care provides for additional clinical experience with more advanced practice and more in-depth study in respiratory care techniques. Graduates are employable in more settings and at higher salaries due to a more thorough experience during their academic program. The Bachelor's degree is a 4-year program at KU and opens avenues to career options such as administrative positions or teaching opportunities, in addition to a career as a respiratory therapist in clinical settings.

Professional Credentialing: CRT and RRT
The Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) credential is required to obtain state licenses and practice as respiratory therapists. This is obtained by passing the National Board for Respiratory Care certification examination. Upon graduation from an accredited program, CRTs are also eligible to sit for the two-part advanced practitioner registration examination and achieve the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) credential. Other credentialing specialty examinations such as neonatal/pediatric specialty and registered pulmonary function technician are also available.

Last modified: Jan 17, 2013

Careers in Respiratory Care
Where do respiratory therapists work? How much do they earn? See career information at AARC.org

U.S. Dept. of Labor has a wealth of information about the field of respiratory care in the Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Kansas Respiratory Care Society

National Board for Respiratory Care