What is Respiratory Therapy?
Respiratory therapy is the diagnosis, education and treatment of patients who have a breathing disorder. Treatments are administered by a respiratory therapist under the general supervision of either a physician or nurse practitioner. Respiratory therapists fill an essential role in both medicine and nursing.
What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?
Respiratory therapist diagnose, educate and treat people who have lung problems. Often a respiratory therapist will begin by interviewing and examining the patient. Then they will conduct tests to measure lung function and capacity. A respiratory therapist may run a wide variety of tests that may include analyzing the levels of oxygen and other gases in a patient’s blood. They will then examine the test results and identify issues before diagnosing the patient. An appropriate treatment is then developed with a supervising physician before it is administered.
Respiratory therapists also teach patients to manage asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), and other breathing problems whether they be short or long term. They also manage home oxygen needs, assist in pulmonary rehabilitation and educate patients on how to properly use the associated equipment. In a clinical setting, a respiratory therapists duties may include providing emergency resuscitation, removing mucus and other fluids from airways, and removing physical obstructions.
Respiratory Therapist Education Curriculum
The education curriculum for an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy is typically a six semester program. It includes general college courses such as human anatomy, chemistry, algebra, composition, sociology, psychology, and a communications elective. Most of these will be completed in the first and second semesters.
The third semester should begin the focus on the courses fundamental in establishing a strong foundation for clinical applications. The curriculum should include fundamentals of respiratory care, arterial blood gases, and clinical practice.
The subsequent semesters will build and expound upon the lessons in the second semester. Courses should include pulmonary function testing, respiratory disease, respiratory care pharmacology, mechanical ventilations, ethics, perinatal/pediatric respiratory care, advanced cardiopulmonary care, and additional units of fundamentals of respiratory care and additional units of clinical practice.
Bachelor’s programs are four year courses in which the first two years are primarily general college studies with an emphasis on science. The following two years are focused on respiratory therapy.
Respiratory Therapist Training Program
When choosing a respiratory therapy training program, verify that the program is accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC) or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). The purpose of CoARC and CAAHEP is to establish a consistent and practical standard of education and to ensure that this standard is met. A list of accredited training programs can also be found at The Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care’s website and on the website for the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs.
Respiratory Therapist Certification
Upon completion of an accredited program, the licensing exam must be passed before actively seeking employment as a respiratory therapist. In addition to the formal training and licensure that is required, voluntary certification is a way to increase the opportunities that are available. There are two types of certification available- certified respiratory therapist (CRT) and registered respiratory therapist (RRT).
These two certifications are offered by the National Board for Respiratory Care.
Certified respiratory therapist is the entry level designation for those who are just starting out. To be eligible for this certification, the candidate will be at least 18 years old and have completed a minimum of an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy from a program accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. An application is then filed with the company that administers the exam, Applied Measurement Professionals (AMP). The candidate will be instructed to pay the appropriate fee.
The exam consists of 160 multiple choice questions and must be completed in three hours. It covers equipment, medical knowledge, and clinical practices. Study materials can be purchase through the AMP online store or are available for free through the NBRC website.
Registered respiratory therapist is a more advanced certification for those who have accumulated real world experience or who have chosen to further their education in their field. Qualifications include that the candidate be at least 18 years old and have acquired their CRT certification. Further requirements to apply for certification include one of the following:
• An associate’s degree from an accredited program.
• Enrollment in a bachelor’s degree program that meets the criteria required by the NBRC.
• 4 years clinical experience in addition to 63 hours of training completed at an accredited school with specified course requirements.
• Graduated from an entry level degree program and has acquired 2 years of clinical experience.
• A bachelor’s degree in another field with 2 years of therapy experience, 62 hours of college level training, and specific course requirements
The RRT certification process includes two separately scheduled exams. The first test must be completed in two hours and includes 115 multiple choice questions. These questions include recall, analysis, and applications of clinical knowledge, equipment, and procedures. The second test covers 10 realistic patient cases in a simulated clinical environment. The Clinical Simulation Examination (CSE) must be completed in 4 hours.
It is recommended by the NBRC that recertification should occur every three years or whenever exam materials are updated. Recertification earns 10 Continuing Respiratory Care Education (CRCE) credits towards licensing renewal for CRT’s and 15 CRCE credits for RRT’s.
Respiratory Therapist Career Options
There are several areas of specialization that provide a variety of career options for respiratory therapists. These include neo-natal/pediatric specialist (CRT-NPS or RRT-NPS), adult critical care specialist (RRT-ACC), sleep disorder specialist (CRT-SDS or RRT-SDS), pulmonary function technologist (CPFT or RPFT). Additional accreditation can also include Asthma Educator (AE-C).
There are opportunities to provide care in hospitals, nursing homes, outpatient care facilities, sleep disorder clinics, patient transport systems, specialized clinics, as well as providing care through home health care organizations.