How to Become a Respiratory Therapist

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To become a respiratory therapist, you’ll need to complete an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in an accredited program. Once you’ve achieved your degree, you’ll need to take an exam to qualify for your license. In addition, there are other exams you can take if you’d like to specialize in a specific area, demonstrate that you have exceptional skills or advance in your career.

What education do I need?

There are steps you can take to prepare for a career as a respiratory therapist before you begin applying for admission to schools:

  • If you’re still in high school, you can get ready for the courses you’ll take during your respiratory therapy program by taking classes in biology, physics, chemistry and math.
  • Volunteer with a hospital or other facility where you can gain exposure to respiratory therapy practices. It will help you be sure that you have chosen the right career, and may even be required by the school you’d like to attend.
  • Explore whether a career in respiratory therapy is right for you by conducting informational interviews.  Although an informational interview is not a job interview, if you are interested in working at a specific healthcare institution or facility, be sure to add someone who works as or supervises a respiratory therapist to your interview list.
  • Decide whether you want to earn an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree or master’s degree. To help you decide, ask during your informational interviews what qualifications local employers require; you can also check job listings in your area for this information or ask to speak to alumni of schools you’re interested in attending.

Respiratory therapists must complete an associate’s or bachelor’s degree from a program that has been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC). These programs can be found at colleges, medical schools, vocational schools, and in the Armed Forces.

Before choosing a program, know which degree you’d like to earn. While an associate’s degree, which can be completed in two years, satisfies the educational requirement to become licensed as a respiratory therapist, employers generally prefer and may require candidates who have earned a four-year bachelor’s degree. Some other things to consider when choosing a program include location, your educational history and work experience, hospital affiliations, courses offered and class size.

Start by going through the list of accredited programs on the American Association of Respiratory Care’s (AARC) website and choosing schools you’d like to know more about. Use their prospective student questionnaire to begin narrowing down your list until you’ve decided which are your top choices, and follow each school’s instructions for applying.

As a student, you will participate in classroom learning as well as hands-on clinical training. Some of the courses you can expect to take include:

  • Medical terminology
  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Microbiology
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Respiratory-based therapeutics
  • Pulmonary care
  • Mechanical ventilation
  • Pharmacology

In addition, you’ll learn about therapeutic and diagnostic procedures, equipment, patient assessment, disease prevention and medical record keeping and reimbursement.

Do I need a license?

Respiratory therapists are licensed in all states except Alaska; requirements vary by state. To apply for a license, you must meet the minimum requirements of having completed an associate’s degree in an accredited program and passed the entry-level Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) exam. New graduates of accredited advanced level respiratory care education programs have three years after graduation to complete the examinations for licensure.

You will need to take the entry-level licensing exam, called the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) exam, which is administered by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). Passing the CRT exam verifies that you possess the essential knowledge, skills and ability of an entry-level respiratory therapists. See how you’ll do by taking the practice examination on the NBRC website.

Some states may also require respiratory therapists to take and pass the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) exam, also administered by the NBRC.

Once you pass the exam, you will need to apply for licensure in the state(s) where you intend to work. This may require disclosing background information, such as criminal history. You will need to keep up your licensed status by either retaking the test every five years or by taking continuing education credits.

Your state may require you to earn the registered respiratory therapist (RRT) credential, which demonstrates a more advanced level of knowledge. It is highly desirable, and may be required by some facilities as a condition of employment.

Before taking the RRT exam, you must take and pass the CRT exam. The RRT credential demonstrates that you have the essential knowledge, skills and abilities required of advanced respiratory therapists. It includes a written section, which you have two hours to complete, and a clinical simulation portion, which you have four hours to complete. See how you’ll do by taking the self-assessment exam available from the NRBC website.

Additionally, every registered therapist should become certified in CPR; it may be a graduation requirement for your program. You can find a nearby class for CPR certification through the Red Cross.

As a newly qualified respiratory therapist, you may also want to take (or may be required by an employer to take) the Adult Critical Care Specialty exam and the Certified Pulmonary Function Technologist exam.

You may also want to earn additional credentials to help you specialize in a specific area, demonstrate your level of skill or advance in your career. Some other exams to consider include:

How can I advance in my career?

In addition to earning specialized credentials, managerial skills offer another avenue of promotion. This is especially true in hospitals where respiratory therapists can advance from staff therapist, to shift supervisor, to department manager. Other possible career opportunities include:

  • Start your own business. In home care, many respiratory therapists start their own business providing patients with therapy and equipment.
  • Teach respiratory therapy courses. Instructing other people is a fundamental aspect of beinfg a respiratory therapist. If this is an area you particularly enjoy or are especially skilled in, you may consider working as a teacher in a school or as part of a training program.
  • Apply your knowledge and skills in the private sector. If you’re most interested in the technology that helps you do your job better, you may find a new career in developing or selling medical devices.
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