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What is a Respiratory Therapist?

Respiratory TherapistRespiratory Therapists are important, vital members of the health care team, who work in hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, emergency transport centers, physician’s offices, home health agencies, specialized care hospitals, medical equipment supply companies, and patients’ homes. All in all, there are about 110,000 Respiratory Therapists practicing in the U.S.

Respiratory Therapists are uniquely trained to treat conditions of the cardiopulmonary system and must at least be graduates of two-year associate degree programs in vocational/technical schools or community colleges. Many respiratory therapists choose to have a four-year or higher degree from a university. Once they have graduated, respiratory therapists are required in many states to earn continuing education credits in order to meet state licensure requirements.

Respiratory Therapists may also choose to set for the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) or Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) credential. The National Board for Respiratory Care bestows these credentials on those who complete the rigorous examinations.

Respiratory therapists perform procedures that are both diagnostic and therapeutic. Some of these activities include:

  • Obtaining and analyzing sputum and breath specimens. They also take blood specimens and analyze them to determine levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other gases.
  • Interpreting the data obtained from these specimens.
  • Measuring the capacity of a patient’s lungs to determine if there is impaired function.
  • Performing stress tests and other studies of the cardiopulmonary system.
  • Studying disorders of people with disruptive sleep patterns.
  • Operating and maintaining various types of highly sophisticated equipment to administer oxygen or to assist with breathing.
  • Using mechanical ventilation for treating patients who cannot breathe adequately on their own.
  • Monitoring and managing therapy that will help a patient recover lung function.
  • Administering medications in aerosol form to help alleviate breathing problems and to help prevent respiratory infections.
  • Monitoring equipment and patient responses to therapy.
  • Conducting rehabilitation activities, such as low-impact aerobic exercise classes, to help patients who suffer from chronic lung problems.
  • Maintaining a patient’s artificial airway, one that may be in place to help the patient who can’t breathe through normal means.
  • Conducting smoking cessation programs for both hospital patients and others in the community who want to kick the tobacco habit.

If you’re interested in becoming a Respiratory Therapist, visit the American Association for Respiratory Care’s web site.

About the Author: George W. Gaebler, MS Ed, RRT, FAARC, has a degree in Respiratory Care from Upstate Medical University and a degree in Management Science and Economics from the State University of New York at Cortland. He holds a Master’s degree in Health Science Education from Cortland. He is currently the Administrative Director of Respiratory and Cardiology Services at University Hospital in Syracuse. He also serves as an adjunct instructor in the Department of Health at the State University of New York at Cortland.

© 2005 American Association for Respiratory Care

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