Guide to College Majors in Respiratory Therapy

I am open to receive with every breath I breathe.
--Michael Sun

What is Respiratory Therapy?

Respiratory therapy is the healthcare field that assists patients with cardiopulmonary (heart/lung) illnesses and breathing difficulties. Respiratory therapists and respiratory therapy technicians assess, treat, and monitor these patients.

Respiratory therapy involves the use of diagnostic testing and equipment to determine patients' lung capacity, oxygen levels in the blood, and other data. This information is used to diagnose patients and to develop treatment plans. Respiratory therapists work with respiratory technicians and other health care professionals to create and carry out these treatment plans.

Most employers require respiratory therapy employees to have an associate degree from an accredited respiratory therapy school. In some cases a certificate in respiratory therapy may be sufficient, but an associate degree is rapidly becoming the minimum educational level required for respiratory therapists and technicians.

Degree programs in respiratory therapy focus heavily on math and science in addition to medical courses such as cardiopulmonary physiology, respiratory pharmacology, and cardiopulmonary diagnostics.

Accredited respiratory therapy programs usually prepare the student to become Certified Respiratory Therapists or Registered Respiratory Therapists, credentials that are often required by state licensing boards. Significant fieldwork is usually required before graduation from an accredited respiratory therapy school.

Depending on their training, respiratory therapy majors can become respiratory therapists, respiratory therapy technicians, pulmonary function technologists, or neonatal-pediatric specialists. With more education and experience, they may advance to management positions, becoming medical and health services managers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the outlook for careers in the field of respiratory therapy is very good. Respiratory therapists with a specialization in pediatrics or cardiopulmonary care are expected to have the best opportunities. Hospitals typically employ the largest number of respiratory therapists, but home healthcare, nursing homes, and physician's offices are expected to have increased needs for respiratory therapists as well.

Career Education in Respiratory Therapy

Most respiratory therapy degree programs are offered at the certificate or associate level, with some bachelor's degrees available as well. Though graduate degrees can be helpful for advancement in any field, advanced respiratory therapy degrees are uncommon.

Respiratory therapy certificate programs are usually classified as either entry-level or advanced. Though some entry-level certification programs exist, most are being replaced as the associate degree becomes the educational standard for most careers in respiratory therapy. Entry-level certification programs provide the education and clinical experience needed to pass the Certified Respiratory Therapist examination that most states require for licensure.

Advanced Certificates in Respiratory Therapy

Advanced certificate programs, in combination with an associate degree, prepare students to take the Registered Respiratory Therapist examination. This exam is typically required for employment in advanced respiratory therapy positions.

Advanced certificate programs are usually short courses of study, lasting a year or less. Courses in the advanced certificate program include advanced cardiopulmonary therapeutic procedures, mechanical ventilation, advanced pharmacologic interventions, patient monitoring, and clinical practice.

Associate Degrees in Respiratory Therapy

An associate degree in respiratory therapy is typically a two-year course of study. These programs typically fall into the advanced category, preparing the student to take the CRT examination. Fieldwork is often required. In the case of online respiratory therapy degrees, which have become increasingly popular, clinical experience can often be arranged locally.

An associate degree is excellent preparation for a bachelor's degree. In addition to courses specific to the field of respiratory therapy, an associate degree program requires that the student take general education courses, such as college algebra, English composition, public speaking, and psychology, which provide a well-rounded education and prepare the student for professional life.

Bachelor's Degrees in Respiratory Therapy

A bachelor's degree in respiratory therapy will prepare you for an advanced respiratory therapy career. Bachelor's degree completion programs are available for healthcare professionals who already have an associate's degree or advanced certification. These programs allow students to build on their prior education so that they may complete their bachelor's degree in a short amount of time. Degree completion programs often are designed to work around the schedules of students who are employed full-time.

A bachelor's degree typically takes four years to complete. A bachelor's degree completion program, however, can take significantly less time. Courses taken in advanced certification programs and associate's degree programs can be applied toward the bachelor's degree completion program, lessening the student's course load and allowing them to finish the degree program more quickly.

Respiratory therapy degree programs focus strongly on science and mathematics courses. Anatomy and physiology, chemistry, physics, pharmacology, and college level mathematics courses are usually required. Courses specific to respiratory therapy often teach diagnostic testing, the use of respiratory therapy equipment, and CPR.

Advanced degrees with a focus on respiratory therapy are uncommon. Respiratory therapy students seeking graduate-level education often enter graduate programs in business, health administration, or education.

Online Degrees in Respiratory Therapy

Despite the clinical experience requirements, online degrees in respiratory therapy have become more popular, especially among working healthcare professionals. Many online programs are designed to provide advanced theoretical and administrative knowledge to respiratory therapists or technicians who already have the requisite clinical experience. Others are intended for newcomers to the field, and require short residencies. Many assist students in arranging local clinical practice so that they can qualify for the certification exam.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Respiratory Therapy?

  • Respiratory Therapist
    Respiratory therapists assist patients with breathing problems and cardiopulmonary disorders. They work with healthcare professionals to develop treatment plans and assess options for the patient. Respiratory therapists are responsible for implementing and following the treatment plan. Respiratory therapists work under the supervision of a doctor and may supervise respiratory therapy technicians.

    Patients of all ages, with a variety of health issues, may require the services of a respiratory therapist to help ease their breathing or aid in ventilation. Respiratory therapists treat premature newborns, performing diagnostic tests and assisting with ventilation when needed. They see heart attack patients and patients with breathing disorders such as emphysema, asthma, or bronchitis. Respiratory therapists may deal with patients in critical situations on life support or in the intensive care unit.

    Respiratory therapists use a variety of treatments to assist their patients. For people with asthma, an aerosol medicine is often prescribed. Other patients may require an oxygen mask or chest physiotherapy. Respiratory therapists in some areas are permitted to take electrocardiograms, perform stress tests, and draw blood for testing.

    Most respiratory patients are dealing with difficult health issues, and therapists must be sensitive to patients' concerns and needs. They should work well as part of a team of health professionals, but also be able to make important decisions independently. Successful respiratory therapists are detail-oriented and understand the importance of keeping good records.

    Most respiratory therapists are employed by hospitals. Respiratory therapists may also be found in nursing homes, physician's offices, sleep disorder clinics, and home health care settings. They typically work full time and may be required to work nights and weekends. Those working in sleep disorder clinics usually work night shifts.

    Graduation from an accredited respiratory therapy school is required to become a Certified or Registered Respiratory Therapist. Schools are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). An associate degree usually is the preferred educational credential for respiratory therapists.

    Respiratory therapists must be licensed in most states. This typically requires respiratory therapists to complete an accredited degree or certificate program as well as a national examination. Completion of these requirements earns you the title of CRT, or Certified Respiratory Therapist. Further education, testing, and experience offer respiratory therapists the chance to become RRTs, or Registered Respiratory Therapists. RRTs qualify for higher-level positions than CRTs and are often given more responsibility.
  • Respiratory Therapy Technician
    Respiratory therapy technicians work with patients under the supervision of a respiratory therapist. They treat patients according to the treatment plan developed by the respiratory therapist and other healthcare staff.

    Respiratory therapy technicians have many of the same duties as a respiratory therapist but do not have the same level of responsibility. A respiratory therapy technician does not usually operate life support, nor do they typically work with patients in intensive care units.

    Technicians are usually required to have an entry-level respiratory therapy certificate or associate degree from an accredited respiratory therapy school. In some states, technicians are required to pass the CRT exam, but others must only be eligible for the exam in order to qualify for a job. Requirements for a respiratory therapy technician vary considerably from state to state.

    As with respiratory therapists, good technicians are patient and sensitive. They are often responsible for documenting patients' treatments, and must be thorough and responsible with these duties. Respiratory therapy technicians must be able to communicate well with many types of people in all age groups.
  • Pulmonary Function Technologist
    Respiratory therapists often qualify for jobs as pulmonary function technologists. These professionals prepare patients and equipment for diagnostic testing involving lung functioning. They sometimes assist the doctor with these tests and record the test results.

    Pulmonary function technologists may be responsible for basic diagnostic testing such as spirometry, lung volume testing, and oximetry. They are often responsible for explaining tests to patients and putting them at ease before the procedure. Pulmonary function technologists work under the direct supervision of a doctor, most frequently in physician's offices and hospitals.

    Pulmonary function technologists are often Certified Respiratory Therapists (CRT) or Registered Respiratory Therapists (RRT) who learn pulmonary function technology skills on the job. Certification is available to pulmonary function technologists through the National Board for Respiratory Care. A CRT who successfully completes the examination requirements becomes a Certified Pulmonary Function Technologist (CPFT). An RRT who successfully completes the examination becomes a Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist (RPFT).
  • Health and Medical Services Manager
    Medical and health services managers plan, deliver, and coordinate health care services for large and small health care facilities. Respiratory therapists with proper education and experience can advance to positions in health services management. They may administer a large facility, such as the respiratory therapy unit in a hospital, or a smaller facility, such as a sleep disorder clinic, home healthcare center, or nursing home.

    In smaller facilities, health and medical services managers are often responsible for staff issues, accounts payable and receivable, and patient admissions. In larger facilities, they may develop policies and procedures, create and maintain budgets, and hire, retain and train personnel.

    Successful medical and health services managers are meticulous and precise. They have good supervisory skills and are able to work well with a diverse population. They have excellent written and oral communications skills, which allow them to work effectively with patients, staff, and the community.

    Medical and health services managers are usually educated in one field of the health care profession, such as respiratory therapy. Following this segment of their education, they usually earn a graduate degree in business or healthcare administration.

    The outlook for careers in medical and health services management is very favorable, according to the BLS. Employment in this field is expected to grow faster than average, especially in home healthcare services.
  • Sales
    Education and experience in respiratory therapy are often sufficient for a career in the field of medical equipment sales and rental. The companies that make respiratory devices often hire respiratory therapists to sell their product to hospitals and physicians' offices. Respiratory therapists use their experience to accurately demonstrate the product and explain its uses and functions.

    Sales representatives work with clients on a regular basis and must be able to communicate effectively with them. They should be knowledgeable about their products and their clients' needs. Good sales reps clearly demonstrate to clients how their needs can be met by using the products in question.

    Educational requirements for sales positions vary, but many require at least a bachelor's degree (though not necessarily in respiratory therapy). Experience with the type of products being sold is often more important than formal education. With experience, respiratory therapists can be uniquely qualified for positions in the sale or rental of medical devices and equipment.

    Though no license is legally required to be a sales representative, manufacturers may require their sales reps to keep their certifications and licenses current. It is important for all salespeople to stay informed about trends in their field. Up-to-date knowledge of both the products and their applicable fields ensures that the salesperson will be successful.

    Sales positions are often stressful because of the impact that job performance has on job security. Sales people are often paid on commission, or a percentage of their sales. This practice can be rewarding for high achieving salespeople and disappointing for those with poor sales performance. Rewards are high for those sales people who meet and exceed sales goals. Cash bonuses and vacation rewards are common.

Certification, Licensure and Associations

In most states, respiratory therapists must be licensed to practice. Of those states requiring licensure, most recognize the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) and the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) as the acceptable credentials for respiratory therapists. Both the CRT and RRT are credentials offered by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC).

To qualify for the CRT credential, graduation from an accredited respiratory therapy program is required. Upon successful completion of a degree program, the credential of Certified Respiratory Therapist is awarded to candidates upon successful completion of the examination. Certified Respiratory Therapists are qualified for entry-level positions in respiratory therapy.

Candidates seeking the credential of Registered Respiratory Therapist must be Certified Respiratory Therapists. After obtaining the CRT and meeting all additional educational requirements, candidates must pass a written content examination and a clinical simulation examination. The RRT credential is usually required for advanced respiratory therapy positions that require significant amounts of responsibility.

Though respiratory therapists work with patients of all ages, some choose to specialize in pediatrics. For these respiratory therapists, the NBRC offers the Neonatal/Pediatric Respiratory Care Specialty Examination. This examination is open to CRTs with one year of experience in neonatal/pediatric respiratory care and to all RRTs.

Respiratory therapists interested in becoming pulmonary function technicians should complete the NBRC examination to become a Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist (RPFT). This credential is available to RRTs and CRTs and offers respiratory therapists expanded career options.

In addition to these certifications, most states require that respiratory therapists and other registered respiratory professionals maintain current CPR certifications. These certifications can be renewed in a short amount of time, often by taking a quick refresher course.

Many states require that licensed respiratory therapists renew their licensure through continuing education credits. State requirements vary, but most require renewal every three years by obtaining at least 30 hours of continuing education credit. Continuing education credits can be obtained by taking respiratory therapy courses, participating in professional associations, and attending professional seminars and conferences.

Students who need to know licensing requirements for respiratory therapy should consult their local licensing boards. Each state has its own licensing requirements, and it is important that they be researched carefully before beginning any degree program.

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