Respiratory ailments can strike anyone from young children to senior citizens. Respiratory therapists and respiratory therapy technicians help doctors and other health care professionals treat breathing problems and related cardiopulmonary disorders. Respiratory therapy offers excellent career opportunities for both therapists and technicians.
Roles of Therapist and Technician
Respiratory therapy technicians work under the supervision of respiratory therapists and doctors, although therapists and technicians perform many of the same tasks. They treat cardiopulmonary conditions such as asthma and emphysema, as well as lung conditions and diseases such pneumonia. They work with patients to improve lung function and may work with them to make lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking. Technicians can operate ventilators and other life-support equipment under the direction of therapists. The respiratory therapist has more responsibilities, including working with doctors to develop patient care plans. The therapist usually handles operation of the most complicated life-support equipment, especially for patients in intensive care units.
Respiratory therapists and technicians have the same basic training requirements. You must have at least an associate degree in respiratory therapy from an accredited program to be licensed in all states except Alaska. Some students take advanced training at universities and earn a bachelor’s degree. Training includes academic courses in anatomy, biology, chemistry, physiology and mathematics. Students also take applied classes in patient assessment, operation of life-support equipment, therapy techniques and pharmacology. Training includes supervised clinical practice.
Two levels of certification are available for respiratory technicians and therapists. Once you’ve graduated from an accredited program, you can take the Certified Respiratory Therapist exam sponsored by the National Board for Respiratory Care. Respiratory therapists and technicians who complete advanced training and work experience requirements can take exams to be certified as a Registered Respiratory Therapist. The RRT certification is not specifically required for advancement to respiratory therapist status. However, employers often require RRT certification for responsibilities such as working in intensive care units that are usually reserved for respiratory therapists.
Opportunities and Pay
Advancing medical technology and an aging population are increasing the demand for respiratory therapists and technicians. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 28 percent growth in respiratory therapist jobs between 2010 and 2020. Salaries for therapists are generally higher than for technicians. As of 2012, the median salary for respiratory therapists was $55,870 a year compared with $46,760 for technicians. The 10 percent of therapists earning the least made less than $40,980, while the top 10 percent were paid more than $75,430. The corresponding figures for respiratory therapy technicians were $31,590 and $66,530, respectively.