What Is Respiratory Therapy?

portrait of James Mielke
by James Mielke
Published on November 23, 2021

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Respiratory therapy is a specialized medical field. Professionals lean on extensive training to provide competent and compassionate care to individuals with pulmonary health issues. The field of respiratory therapy consistently ranks as one of the most in-demand healthcare careers.

Students can enter this field through several academic paths and learn to utilize practical, theoretical, and clinical training. For many, helping others provides the incentive to enter this field.

This guide explores essential career information for individuals interested in pursuing a career in respiratory therapy. It spotlights trends in the field, potential career options, and the ins and outs of beginning a respiratory therapy career.

Continue reading to learn more about this rapidly growing medical field.

What Is the Job Demand and Salary for a Career in Respiratory Therapy?

For students interested in entering a growing medical field, earning a respiratory therapy degree can be a practical choice. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), careers for respiratory therapists are projected to grow by 23% from 2020-2030. This 23% job growth projection translates to over 31,000 additional job opportunities during that decade.

In addition to a growing job market, respiratory therapists enter a field that offers competitive pay. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for respiratory therapists is $62,810, as of May 2020. And while the lowest 10% of these professionals earn a median annual wage of less than $45,940, the top 10% of earners make a median salary of more than $89,170 per year.

While top earners often rely on experience to boost their earning potential, further academic work and technical specializations can help professionals enhance their career options. Additionally, managerial and supervisory roles can often lead to increased pay.

What Careers Are There in Respiratory Therapy?

5 Popular Respiratory Therapy Jobs

Respiratory Therapist

Median Annual Salary (as of May 2020): $62,810

Projected Job Growth (2020-2030): 23%

These licensed professionals help treat patients with various cardiopulmonary issues such as asthma, emphysema, and other chronic ailments. Respiratory therapists hold at least an associate degree and work closely with doctors and nurses to provide essential medical care. These professionals work in locations like hospitals, nursing care facilities, and home health situations.


Medical Sonographers and Cardiovascular Technologists and Technicians

Median Annual Salary (as of May 2020): $70,380

Projected Job Growth (2020-2030): 14%

Medical sonographers and cardiovascular techs work closely with physicians, surgeons, and registered nurses. They conduct tests to help diagnose and treat medical issues. These workers utilize technical training and proficiency with various diagnostic equipment. They analyze test results and relevant medical data.


Medical and Health Services Managers

Median Annual Salary (as of May 2020): $104,280

Projected Job Growth (2020-2030): 32%

These experienced medical professionals tackle supervisory and administrative responsibilities in various medical environments. Medical and health services managers assess metrics to improve efficiency, train staff, and oversee day-to-day functions within their institution. Other responsibilities include managing budgets and finances, health and safety oversight, and various hiring duties. Entry-level jobs in this field typically require a bachelor's degree.


Home Health and Personal Care Aides

Median Annual Salary (as of May 2020): $27,080

Projected Job Growth (2020-2030): 33%

With projected employment growth exceeding 1 million jobs between 2020-2030, home health workers enter a dramatically expanding job market. Some patients need respiratory therapy at home. Professionals with a background in respiratory therapy can help ensure these patients receive necessary medical assistance.


Wholesale and Manufacturing Sales Representatives

Median Annual Salary (as of May 2020): $65,420

Projected Job Growth (2020-2030): 5%

Medical sales representatives with a background in respiratory therapy can utilize their expertise to boost sales in the medical equipment industry. These workers build customer relationships while enhancing their knowledge of technical equipment. Medical sales representatives routinely answer client questions, build their roster of potential customers, and negotiate the parameters of various sales.


How Do I Get into Respiratory Therapy?

For students interested in respiratory therapy careers, pursuing an associate degree or bachelor's degree in the field may provide the technical, theoretical, and clinical skills needed to provide compassionate and effective care. These two academic tracks can give learners the opportunity to earn licensure. As they work toward their degree, students complete classes including pulmonary rehabilitation, asthma education, and critical care.

Programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs provide the academic requirements necessary for licensure. After completing their degree, students can earn their respiratory therapy credentials by taking an exam offered by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). Before entering the workforce as a certified or registered respiratory therapist, students must successfully complete the NBRC's multiple-choice exam.

In addition to undergraduate coursework, students interested in leadership roles or additional specializations can often complete their master's degree in respiratory therapy online.

How Long Does It Take to Get Into Respiratory Therapy?

The time it takes to begin respiratory therapy careers depends mainly on the degree level that students pursue.

For some, an associate degree in respiratory therapy offers a clear path toward entry-level roles. They can complete their degree in two years. After meeting academic requirements, associate degree holders can sit for their certified respiratory therapy examination.

Others choose to pursue a four-year bachelor's degree. Along with certification, the degree may lead to expanded career options and higher earning potential. Students pursuing a master's degree in the field can expect to complete that program after about two years of full-time coursework.

Regardless of degree path, learners should participate in networking and mentorship opportunities to boost career options.

The Future of Respiratory Therapy

Growing Job Market

As the baby boomer generation ages, the need for trained respiratory therapists will continue to grow. Respiratory therapy graduates can expect to enter a job market that the BLS projects to grow by 23% between 2020 and 2030. With a significant increase in the aging population in the coming years, the need for effective and compassionate care should increase.

Expanding Reach

While respiratory therapists historically work in traditional medical settings like hospitals, these professionals increasingly work in other locations as well. Respiratory therapists can expect a rise in the need for services in home health settings, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma clinics, and community health centers.

Expanding Influence

In addition to a rapidly growing need for respiratory therapists in critical care, there may be a shift toward preventative care in the future. Respiratory therapy professionals may tackle community education with a focus on population health. Instead of waiting for patients to arrive at a hospital for critical care, health leaders may prioritize education and preventative therapeutics.

Automation

Similar to many sectors in the medical field, automation and technology will significantly affect how patients receive care in the future. New responsibilities and technical training will allow respiratory therapists to continue providing essential services to their patients.

Is Respiratory Therapy Right for Me?

For students wanting to pursue hands-on clinical roles in the medical field, respiratory therapy jobs can offer expanding career options and competitive wages. Whether pursuing an associate, bachelor's, or master's degree, students can gain vital hands-on experience through clinical exercises and internship opportunities. Options like internships and co-ops allow degree-seekers to get an immersive feel for the job before entering the workforce.

Students who want to pursue a respiratory therapy career often have and build upon vital attributes like patience, compassion, and communication skills. Additionally, prospective students commonly perform well in science and math. For those considering this career path, interpersonal, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills are also helpful.

Frequently Asked Questions About Respiratory Therapy

What does a respiratory therapist do?

Respiratory therapists offer competent and compassionate care to patients dealing with various breathing-related issues, including asthma, emphysema, and COPD. These trained and licensed professionals work in settings such as hospitals, nursing care facilities, and in-home environments.

Responsibilities can vary depending on experience and education. Common career areas for respiratory therapy grads include critical care, sleep disorder testing, and neonatal and pediatric respiratory care. Those with higher levels of education can often pursue management roles in the field.

Is respiratory therapy a good career?

According to the BLS, respiratory therapist jobs are projected to grow by 23% between 2020 and 2030. As a result, respiratory therapy graduates can expect to enter a growing field. This can be an especially great career for those interested in providing hands-on clinical care.

While nursing degrees prepare students with expansive medical training, respiratory therapy students' coursework focuses on the cardiopulmonary system. This allows them to use their expertise in various medical environments.

What education is needed to be a respiratory therapist?

Entry-level respiratory therapist careers require students to have an associate degree in respiratory therapy from an accredited program. This degree program can give learners the hands-on and technical skills they need to earn their license. Those who have earned a bachelor's degree or higher tend to have expanded job opportunities and earning potential.

Students tackling a bachelor's in respiratory therapy often have the opportunity to choose from specializations in areas such as pulmonary diagnostics, healthcare management, and critical care. Other specialization areas include geriatric, adult, and emergency respiratory therapy.

What can I do with a respiratory therapy degree?

Although this degree focuses just on respiratory therapy, students still have access to a variety of careers in various settings within the medical field. Students can study areas like education, case management, and home care. Experienced professionals often tackle management and supervisory roles. Common careers for graduates include areas like adult critical care, therapeutic intervention, and pulmonary function technology.

Standard responsibilities for registered respiratory therapists include examining patients for cardiopulmonary issues, consulting with physicians and nurses, and demonstrating equipment use to patients.

What are the highest-paying jobs in respiratory therapy?

According to the BLS, registered respiratory therapists earn a median salary of $62,810 per year. For associate degree earners, this is a relatively competitive salary in the medical field. The top 10% of workers earn a median wage of more than $89,170 annually. Respiratory therapy graduates with a bachelor's or master's degree may have expanded career options and earning potential.

Additionally, respiratory therapy professionals pursuing managerial, administrative, and supervisory positions can traditionally earn higher wages. Medical and health services managers earn a median salary exceeding $104,280 per year.

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