How to Become a Respiratory Therapist: A Comprehensive Guide

How to Become a Respiratory Therapist: A Comprehensive Guide

Respiratory therapists play a vital role in the healthcare industry, helping individuals of all ages breathe easier and manage respiratory conditions. As a respiratory therapist, you will work closely with patients, providing them with the care and support they need to improve their lung function and overall well-being. If you have a passion for healthcare and want to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives, a career as a respiratory therapist may be the perfect choice for you. In this comprehensive guide, we will walk you through the steps on how to become a respiratory therapist, from education and training requirements to job prospects and career advancement opportunities.

What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

Before diving into the educational and career path, it’s essential to understand the role and responsibilities of a respiratory therapist. Respiratory therapists are healthcare professionals who specialize in assessing, treating, and caring for patients with respiratory disorders and cardiopulmonary diseases. Their primary responsibilities include:

1. Assessing and evaluating patients’ respiratory conditions.
2. Developing and implementing treatment plans, including administering medications and therapies.
3. Monitoring patients’ vital signs and lung function.
4. Educating patients on how to use respiratory equipment and techniques.
5. Collaborating with other healthcare professionals to provide comprehensive care.
6. Responding to emergency situations, such as assisting with life support measures.
7. Conducting diagnostic tests and analyzing the results.
8. Providing emotional support to patients and their families.

Respiratory therapists work in various healthcare settings, including hospitals, long-term care facilities, clinics, and home healthcare. They often work with patients of all ages, from premature infants to elderly adults, making this profession both challenging and rewarding.

Education Requirements

To become a respiratory therapist, you must follow a specific educational path. The most common educational requirement is to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy or a related field. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of the education and training required to become a respiratory therapist:

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1. High School Preparation: Start by taking relevant courses in high school, such as biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Building a strong foundation in these subjects will be beneficial for your future coursework.

2. Earn a Degree: Most aspiring respiratory therapists pursue an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy, which typically takes two years to complete. Alternatively, you can choose a bachelor’s degree program, which typically takes four years. Both programs are designed to provide you with a solid understanding of respiratory care principles and hands-on clinical experience.

3. Accreditation: Ensure that the respiratory therapy program you choose is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC). Accreditation ensures that the program meets high standards of education and training.

4. Clinical Experience: During your program, you will complete clinical rotations, gaining practical experience in real healthcare settings. These rotations are essential for applying theoretical knowledge to real patient care situations.

5. Obtain Licensure: After completing your education, you must become licensed to practice as a respiratory therapist. Licensing requirements vary by state but generally include passing the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) exam or the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) exam, both administered by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). Most states also require ongoing continuing education to maintain licensure.

6. Optional Certification: While not mandatory, obtaining additional certifications, such as the Neonatal/Pediatric Respiratory Care Specialist (NPS) or the Certified Pulmonary Function Technologist (CPFT), can enhance your job prospects and career advancement opportunities.

Job Outlook and Salary

The job outlook for respiratory therapists is promising, with a growing demand for their expertise. As the aging population continues to increase, the incidence of respiratory diseases and conditions also rises. This trend drives the need for respiratory therapists who can provide specialized care and support. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the employment of respiratory therapists is projected to grow by 19% from 2020 to 2030, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.

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As of my last knowledge update in January 2022, the median annual wage for respiratory therapists in the United States was $63,950. However, salaries can vary based on factors such as location, experience, and the type of healthcare facility you work in. Respiratory therapists working in hospitals tend to earn higher salaries than those in other settings.

Career Advancement Opportunities

A career as a respiratory therapist offers several opportunities for advancement and specialization. Here are some paths you can explore to further your career:

1. Advanced Practice: Consider pursuing a bachelor’s or master’s degree in respiratory therapy or a related field to become an advanced practice respiratory therapist. This can lead to roles such as clinical specialist or clinical coordinator.

2. Management and Administration: With experience, you can move into managerial or administrative positions within healthcare facilities. These roles may involve overseeing respiratory therapy departments or managing healthcare programs.

3. Education: If you have a passion for teaching, you can become an instructor in respiratory therapy programs. This allows you to train and mentor the next generation of respiratory therapists.

4. Research: Engage in research activities to contribute to advancements in respiratory care. This can involve working in research institutions or collaborating with healthcare organizations on clinical trials and studies.

5. Specialization: Obtain additional certifications in specialized areas of respiratory therapy, such as neonatal care, pulmonary rehabilitation, or sleep disorders. Specialization can open up niche career opportunities and potentially lead to higher earning potential.

Continuing Education and Professional Development

In the field of respiratory therapy, it’s crucial to stay up-to-date with the latest advancements and best practices. Continuous learning and professional development are essential to providing the highest level of care to patients. Here are some ways to stay current in your profession:

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1. Attend Workshops and Conferences: Participate in workshops, seminars, and conferences related to respiratory therapy. These events offer opportunities to learn from experts, network with peers, and discover the latest industry trends.

2. Join Professional Organizations: Become a member of professional organizations such as the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC) and the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). These organizations provide access to resources, publications, and opportunities for certification and advancement.

3. Read Scientific Journals: Stay informed about the latest research and developments in respiratory therapy by regularly reading scientific journals and publications in the field.

4. Pursue Continuing Education Credits: Many states require respiratory therapists to complete continuing education credits to maintain licensure. Take advantage of relevant courses and workshops to fulfill these requirements and expand your knowledge.


Becoming a respiratory therapist is a fulfilling and rewarding journey that involves dedicated education, training, and commitment to improving the lives of patients with respiratory conditions. The demand for respiratory therapists is expected to continue growing, making it an attractive career option for those interested in healthcare.

If you have a passion for helping people breathe easier and thrive in a fast-paced healthcare environment, consider embarking on the path to becoming a respiratory therapist. Your education and clinical experience will prepare you for a meaningful career dedicated to respiratory care, with opportunities for advancement and specialization along the way. Stay engaged in professional development to remain at the forefront of this dynamic and essential field in healthcare.

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