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Respiratory Therapists Have Clear Prospects

Ready for some exciting news? Take a deep breath. If you enjoy working with people, like science and have an interest in medicine, you can build a great career in respiratory therapy.

Respiratory therapists work under the direction of a physician to help people with breathing problems and related cardiopulmonary (heart and lung) disorders. It's a challenging profession with a big need for new people.

"It's one of the hot jobs," says Debra Laken. She's a respiratory therapist who teaches in the respiratory therapy program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "It's because of the increasingly elderly population. There's more of a need for respiratory therapists and this trend will continue into the future as our population ages."

Respiratory therapists evaluate and care for all kinds of patients. Patients range in age from premature infants with underdeveloped lungs to senior citizens with lung disease. They deal with any kind of lung problem you can imagine. Their patients might have chronic asthma or emphysema, or they might be victims of a heart attack, stroke, drowning or shock.

"The demand is there, as with other allied health professions," says Tom Kallstrom. He's the chief operating officer for the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC) and has about 30 years of clinical experience as a respiratory therapist.

"The mean age of the respiratory therapist is in the mid 40s, and our projections show that in the next 10 years we will see about a third of working respiratory therapists eligible for retirement," Kallstrom says.

Chronic Lung Disease on the Rise

"[T]here is a definite need for them, and a lot of this has to do with the fact that a lot of what the respiratory therapist does is work with patients with chronic lung disease," says Kallstrom.

"Two of the most well-known ones would be asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and we're seeing an increase in both of those chronic diseases... so there's certainly a demand for qualified respiratory therapists to treat and to educate these patients."

Kathy Spurr also sees growing demand for respiratory therapists. She worked clinically as a respiratory therapist for 13 years and now teaches respiratory therapy.

"Our population is aging, and with an aging population and people living longer, the burden of chronic disease is heavier, and some of those prevalent, more chronic diseases are cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, obstructive sleep apnea -- diseases and disorders that have an association with the cardiopulmonary system," says Spurr.

Laken says demand varies across the country. "Probably more rural areas would need therapists [because] it's harder to get people to work in these areas," she says.

"Therapists are usually trained in the cities. Even though some of our students are from rural areas -- a few of them go back to work in their communities, but some stay and work in the larger cities. The same is true for our international students."

Choice of Different Work Environments

Respiratory therapists have many choices as to where they work and what they specialize in.

"We do so much -- we're not narrowed down to one area or specialty," says Laken. "We take care of small children, infants, [and] we can specialize in certain areas if we like... Some therapists specialize with the neonates [newborns], other therapists like to work with children at the children's hospitals and some therapists specialize in critical care.

"There are openings now in doctor's offices, home health care, rehabilitation centers, pulmonary function labs, research, management, education, hospitals, flight therapists, sales of respiratory medical equipment, and there are jobs for asthma educators."

Education Required

Every state except Alaska and Hawaii requires respiratory therapists to be licensed. The minimum requirement to become licensed is an associate's degree from an accredited respiratory therapy program.

There are three-year training programs offered by community colleges and institutes of technology. Some universities offer four-year degrees. Those who pass the certification exam earn the CSRT Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) designation.

Respiratory therapy programs include courses on human anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, physics, chemistry and microbiology. You also study such things as diagnostic procedures and tests, patient assessment, cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation, and health promotion.

There is also a growing need for respiratory therapy educators.

"To be an educator, you're going to have to have at least a bachelor's degree, and if you want to work at a university, you [need to] have a master's, and some universities really would prefer a doctorate degree," says Laken. "There is a shortage of therapists now in education, it seems, as people are getting older and retiring."

Getting a Feel for the Profession

If this sounds like an area you would enjoy, try to do some volunteering or job shadowing.

"We recommend that if you're considering going into respiratory therapy that you go to a shadowing situation where you contact your local hospital, contact a respiratory therapy department, and ask if you can follow a therapist around for a day," says Kallstrom.

"Something like that would be a good way for you to get a good feel for what this profession is, rather than finding out about it after you've started your clinicals (hands-on training) maybe a year down the road into school."

Job shadowing or volunteering will expose you to the more challenging parts of the job. Wanting to care for patients is essential, but so is being able to handle stress.

"I think you want to have compassion for patients," says Kallstrom. "You need to have an ability to deal with a situation that might be quite scary. If a patient comes into an emergency room from a car accident, you're going to see blood, you're going to see trauma.

"At the same time, if you're working with small children or neonates, it's sometimes difficult too, when you're dealing with a patient going through the dying process," Kallstrom adds.

"So there are things that are not easy, but the benefits of having made a patient [healthy] in large part by something you've been able to do, is really what the reward is for respiratory therapists."

If that sounds like it might be a bit much to handle, the good news is that respiratory therapy offers many different work environments. Not all of them are as stressful as others.

"You can work in an area that can be very stressful, like the ICU (intensive care unit), emergency departments. And then you can work somewhere where the environment's quite controlled, like an operating room or a sleep lab or in homecare," says Spurr.

"And then there are a variety of other things that you can do. You can go into education and research, or medical equipment sales -- those types of things."


American Association of Respiratory Care
A great source for career info and videos

Why Asthmatic Kids Love Their Respiratory Therapists
An account of the difference a good therapist can make

Back to Career Cluster


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