Everything You Need to Know

Anyone that has ever researched healthcare career options knows that there are multiple paths that can be pursued. While the demand for clinicians of all kinds continues to grow year-over-year, the respiratory therapy field is projected to grow the fastest over the next ten years (more on that later). So, what can you expect from a career as a respiratory therapist? Keep reading to find out more about this rewarding career path and to discover if respiratory therapy is the right field for you.

What is a respiratory therapist?

clinician administering respiratory therapySimply put, a respiratory therapist is a certified medical professional that works with patients of all ages that are suffering from sudden or chronic breathing problems. Due to the nature of their work, respiratory therapists closely collaborate with doctors and other healthcare professionals to ensure patients receive a correct diagnosis, an effective treatment plan and an appropriate level of care. In addition to knowing/understanding human anatomy and physiology, respiratory therapists must have a broad knowledge of the pathophysiology of the cardiopulmonary systems (i.e. diseased or injured cardiovascular organs).

What conditions do respiratory therapists treat?

Respiratory therapists treat breathing and/or airway problems that stem from a variety of conditions and events. Some of the most common conditions that respiratory therapists treat include:

  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome*;
  • Asthma;
  • Babies born before their lungs are fully developed;
  • Bronchitis;
  • Cardiac failure;
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD);
  • Cystic fibrosis;
  • Emphysema;
  • Lou Gehrig’s disease;
  • Parkinson’s disease;
  • Pneumonia; and
  • Sleep apnea.

*Acute respiratory distress syndrome is a very serious condition that can occur after an injury or illness like COVID-19.

Where do respiratory therapists work?

While most respiratory therapists (approximately 75%) work in an acute care hospital setting, the reality is that respiratory therapy is available at most health care venues. For example, a respiratory therapist may work in a doctor’s office, conducting pulmonary function tests and providing patients with education about their condition(s). Patients that have been discharged from the hospital to a long-term care facility, a rehabilitation center or their home may receive regular visits from a respiratory therapist to ensure continued progress and care. Furthermore, many respiratory therapists work in the community, providing education and resources for those with more common/manageable conditions (i.e. asthma education and smoking cessation programs).

Here are a few additional places where you can find respiratory therapists working:

  • In air transport and ambulance programs providing immediate medical attention;
  • In emergency rooms providing life-saving treatments;
  • In intensive care units managing the ventilators that keep patients alive;
  • In operating rooms working alongside anesthesiologists to monitor patient breathing;
  • In pediatric units treating children with conditions that range from premature birth to cystic fibrosis; and
  • In sleep laboratories diagnosing disorders like sleep apnea.

What are typical job duties for a respiratory therapist?

respiratory therapist checking an x-rayWhile a respiratory therapist’s job duties will vary based on the setting they work in, the following list is illustrative of the typical job duties they perform:

  • Monitoring cardiopulmonary systems;
  • Performing diagnostic tests;
  • Obtaining and analyzing blood and sputum specimens;
  • Administering oxygen;
  • Administering drugs to the lungs;
  • Managing mechanical ventilators;
  • Monitoring and recording patients’ progress; and
  • Teaching patients how to take medications and use equipment.

What are the requirements to become a respiratory therapist?

In order to work as a respiratory therapist, an individual must have (at a minimum) an associate degree from an accredited respiratory therapy education program. However, most professionals within the field have a bachelor’s degree and some even go on to earn a graduate degree. Respiratory therapists with advanced degrees tend to qualify for more compensation and are eligible to fill managerial roles (i.e. disease manager, case manager, clinical specialist). See the chart below.

Before a respiratory therapist can begin working, they will need to pass their state’s licensing exam and/or complete a credentialing exam from the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). Requirements will vary by state. Click here to learn more about the NBRC credentialing process.

Degree Type Average Annual Salary Job Title
Associate’s Degree  $48,971 Sleep Study Technician
Bachelor’s Degree $60,280 Respiratory Therapist
Master’s Degree $66,644 Respiratory Therapist Educator

What skills or qualities do you need to succeed as a respiratory therapist?

Individuals that want to succeed in a respiratory therapy career will need to possess strong interpersonal and critical thinking skills. For instance, respiratory therapists treat patients that are having difficulty breathing. As a result, it is not uncommon for these patients to exhibit fear and anxiety. A compassionate and empathetic therapist can help calm a patient during a stressful and uncertain time. Furthermore, the cause and most effective treatment plan for a patient’s condition is not always obvious. For that reason, respiratory therapists must be able to quickly interpret multiple data points, ensuring the patient receives the proper diagnosis and care.

What is the career outlook for respiratory therapists?

respiratory therapist administering care to patientAccording to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of respiratory therapists is projected to grow 19% between 2019 and 2029. This growth rate is substantially larger than the average growth rate for all occupations (4%).

The primary reason for this accelerated growth can be attributed to America’s sizable aging population. As more “baby boomers” (those born between 1946 and 1964) approach the age of retirement and beyond, there will undoubtedly be increased incidences of respiratory conditions (pneumonia, COPD and other conditions that damage or restrict lung function). As a result, there will be an increased demand for respiratory therapy services and treatments.

Why should a respiratory therapist partner with a healthcare staffing agency?

There are several reasons why a respiratory therapist should consider partnering with a healthcare staffing agency for their employment needs. First and foremost, staffing agencies have access to short- and long-term contract work opportunities across the country. This means that respiratory therapists that are passionate about traveling will have the opportunity to travel while exploring the country.


Respiratory therapists can strategically select opportunities with a staffing agency that will grow their skill set.

Secondly, respiratory therapists that are partnered with a staffing agency will be able to gain the type of work experience that will advance their career more quickly. Because staffing agencies have access to multiple positions, respiratory therapists can strategically select opportunities that will grow their skill set.

Lastly, respiratory therapists that are partnered with a staffing firm will have a dedicated recruiter that is committed to their success. Whether it’s finding a contract in the ideal location or negotiating a compensation package, your recruiter is there to help make your career goals a reality.

Are you a respiratory therapist that is interested in exploring all the benefits that a partnership with a healthcare staffing company can provide? We’d love to connect. Click here to fill out our contact form.