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Respiratory therapists care for patients with breathing, cardiopulmonary and sleep disorders. Their patients can range from babies born prematurely, to children with asthma or cystic fibrosis, to older adults suffering from emphysema or sleep apnea. Respiratory therapists may also provide emergency care to victims of heart attacks, stroke, drowning, or shock.

Respiratory therapists typically work as part of a medical team. After examining a patient, the respiratory therapist consults with the doctor in developing a treatment plan and may supervise respiratory technicians providing treatment.

What does a respiratory therapist do?

Services respiratory therapists provide can be grouped into three categories: diagnosis, treatment, and education and support services.

Diagnosis

  • Perform tests to evaluate patient’s condition, such as conducting electrocardiograms (EKGs), measuring arterial blood gases, analyzing sputum or blood samples to determine pH (blood’s acidity or alkalinity) and levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
  • Assess lung capacity by measuring the volume and flow of oxygen during inhalation and exhalation and comparing with average readings.
  • Interview patients for history and details of breathing problems.

Treatment

  • Administer supplemental oxygen through a mask or nasal cannula, or deliver pressurized oxygen through a ventilator to patients who cannot breathe without assistance.
  • Monitor patient’s response to therapy through vital signs, arterial blood gases, and blood chemistry, and consult with supervising doctor.
  • Set up, test, operate and maintain equipment like ventilators, gas administration machines and aerosol generators.
  • Maintain charts describing treatment and outcomes.
  • Respond to emergency calls requiring artificial respiration or cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Education and Support

  • Teach patients and their caregivers basic information on managing their conditions and treatment procedures.
  • Demonstrate how to use and maintain equipment such as ventilators to patients and their caregivers.
  • Provide doctors with blood analysis results.
  • Perform home visits to inspect, clean and evaluate equipment.
  • Instruct patients in performing breathing exercises.
  • Train students, respiratory therapy technicians and other health care assistants.

What skills does a respiratory therapist need?

Respiratory therapists rely on a combination of technology, medical and educational skills to succeed.

Technology Skills

  • Using, maintaining and evaluating the performance of sophisticated medical equipment.
  • Understanding how to apply medical devices to treat patients’ conditions.
  • Ability to assess whether a patient is gaining expected benefits from the equipment he or she is using, and adjust the use, type or combination of therapeutic equipment if necessary.

Medical Skills

  • Ability to think critically and establish connections with patients to make accurate diagnoses.
  • Complex problem-solving skills to prescribe appropriate treatment for symptoms.
  • Understanding of how respiratory therapy fits with the skills and services provided by other healthcare experts.
  • Strong communication skills, including active listening and giving clear instructions.

Education

  • Understanding of public speaking fundamentals; ability to clearly present information to individuals and groups so they can understand the material.
  • Ability to evaluate a listener’s knowledge, skill and engagement levels and tailor instructions accordingly.

Where do respiratory therapists work?

Respiratory therapists most commonly work in hospitals but they can also work in different healthcare facilities (clinics, doctor’s offices, etc.) or directly with patients in their homes. Respiratory therapists may also be employed in laboratories, sleep disorder centers, rehabilitation or convalescent homes, educational institutions and wellness centers.

A typical work week is 35 to 40 hours. Because hospitals are staffed 24 hours a day, evening and/or weekend shifts may be assigned.

What salary can a respiratory therapist expect to earn?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010 median pay for respiratory therapists was $54,280 per year, or $26.10 per hour. Pay varies according to location. Check Salary.com to get an idea of what you can expect to earn in your area.

Will there be many jobs as a respiratory therapist available?

Respiratory therapist employment is expected to grow faster than average: by 28% between 2010 and 2020, with 52,700 job openings projected.

An aging population will require increased care as will the rising number of premature babies born each year. In addition, environmental issues responsible for a growing number of asthma sufferers will continue to be a factor in people’s breathing difficulties.

 

Additional Resources

Below you will find additional resources and information for those seeking to learn more about how to become a respiratory therapist:

How to Become a Respiratory Therapist

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