What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

A day in the life of a respiratory therapist: Treat a wide range of patients from infants through the elderly, teach patients how to use medications and equipment, consult with physicians and other healthcare staff to help develop and modify individual patient care plans, perform regular checks on patients and equipment

The Balance / Marina Li

A respiratory therapist (RT) is a healthcare worker who treats people with breathing or cardiopulmonary problems. Among their patients are premature infants whose lungs are underdeveloped and children and adults who have lung diseases such as cystic fibrosis, asthma, and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

As a respiratory therapist in a clinical setting gains experience, he or she can move from providing general care to caring for critically ill patients. Those with advanced degrees may become supervisors. RTs who are employed by healthcare agencies may become branch managers. Some respiratory therapists eventually teach in RT programs.

Respiratory Therapist Duties & Responsibilities

The job of a respiratory therapist generally requires the ability to do the following:

  • Treat a wide range of patients from infants through the elderly
  • Consult with physicians and other healthcare staff to help develop and modify individual patient care plans
  • Provide complex therapy requiring a great deal of independent judgment, such as caring for patients who are on life support in hospital intensive care units.
  • Evaluate patients by performing limited physical examinations and conducting diagnostic tests including those that measure lung capacity tests and acidity and alkalinity of the blood
  • Treat patients by using oxygen or oxygen mixtures, chest physiotherapy, and aerosol medications.
  • Connect patients who cannot breathe on their own to ventilators that deliver pressurized oxygen into the lungs
  • Teach patients how to use medications and equipment
  • Perform regular checks on patients and equipment
  • Supervise respiratory therapy technicians​

After interviewing and examining a patient, and upon consultation with a physician, a respiratory therapist will develop a treatment plan. This plan may include removing mucus from a patient's lungs or inserting a ventilation tube into the patient's windpipe and connecting it to a machine that delivers oxygen. A respiratory therapist also delivers emergency care to heart attack and drowning victims or to people in shock. Some RTs work in home care. In this capacity, one sets up ventilators and other life support equipment and instructs caretakers in their use.

Respiratory Therapist Salary

A respiratory therapist's salary can vary depending on location, experience, and whether they're working for a public or private institution.

  • Median Annual Salary: $59,710
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $83,030
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $43,120

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017

Education Requirements & Qualifications

Respiratory therapy programs can be found at colleges, medical schools, vocational schools, and in the Armed Forces. Respiratory therapy students will take many science-oriented courses including human anatomy and physiology, physics and microbiology. They'll also learn about therapeutic and diagnostic procedures, patient assessment, and medical record keeping and insurance reimbursement.

  • Education: One must have, at least, an associate degree to work as a respiratory therapist. Most programs that train people to work in this field offer bachelor's degrees as well and often employers favor job candidates who have graduated from those programs. 
  • State licensing: Most states in the U.S. license respiratory therapists. Although licensing requirements vary by state, usually one must have graduated from a program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC), earning at least an associate degree. Use the Licensed Occupations Tool from CareerOneStop to find out what the licensing requirements are in the state in which you plan to work.
  • Examinations: In addition, a candidate for licensing must pass a national or state examination. The National Board for Respiratory Care administers the Certified Respiratory Therapist Exam (CRT) and the Registered Respiratory Therapist Exam (RRT). Some states require passing one or both of these tests. RTs from states that don't require these exams may sit for them as well since some employers either require certification or prefer job candidates who have it.

Respiratory Therapist Skills & Competencies

RTs must have certain skills and qualities to do their job effectively:

  • Interpersonal skills: Working one-on-one with sick patients and their worried families requires compassion and excellent interpersonal skills. Those skills also help facilitate the teamwork that is common between RTs and other healthcare workers.
  • Problem-solving skills: RTs must be able to recommend and administer the appropriate treatments based on evaluating patient symptoms.
  • Detail oriented: RTs must pay attention to the smallest of details to ensure patients are getting the correct treatments.
  • Patience: RTs may have to spend long periods of time working with a single patient.

Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment of respiratory therapists will grow 23 percent from 2016 to 2026. That's much faster than the 7-percent average for all occupations during the same time period.

Work Environment

Respiratory therapists can be on their feet for long periods of time while working with patients. Most work in respiratory care, anesthesiology or pulmonary medicine departments of hospitals. Others work in nursing care facilities. Some are employed by home health care agencies.

Work Schedule

Most RTs work full time, but days and hours will vary depending on where they work. Some positions may require evening and weekend hours.