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Respiratory Care Practitioner Vs. Respiratory Therapist

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Medical professionals working in respiratory care treat disorders affecting the respiratory system, which controls breathing. Respiratory care practitioners and respiratory therapists work to treat patients' breathing disorders, which may include asthma, tuberculosis or emphysema. Both professionals provide care to similar patients with similar afflictions, but they hold different levels of education and tend to earn very different salaries.

Respiratory Care Practitioners

These professionals, more commonly called pulmonologists, diagnose and treat conditions affecting the respiratory system. The respiratory system comprises the airway, lungs and respiratory muscles, and disorders affecting this system can sometimes extend to the cardiovascular system, as well. Pulmonary vascular disease, for example, may affect the respiratory system at first, but often spreads to other bodily systems later on.

Pulmonologists may work in their own independent firms or as part of multidisciplinary healthcare facilities. In hospitals, they tend to work in intensive care units. These professionals are generally better educated than respiratory therapists – respiratory care practitioners typically undergo:

  • A four-year bachelor's degree.
  • A four-year medical school program.
  • A three-year training program (or residency) in internal medicine.
  • A two- to three-year fellowship.
  • A specialty board certification exam.

These professionals are equipped to administer and interpret tests to make diagnoses of lung-related disorders. Such tests may include a CT scan, chest fluoroscopy, chest ultrasound, pleural biopsy, pulmonary function test, pulse oximetry test, thoracentesis, chest tube, bronchoscopy or sleep study. Pulmonologists don't typically conduct surgery, but they do assess patients' ability to withstand the stresses of surgery, and work with surgeons to create breathing management strategies for at-risk patients. In these cases, respiratory care practitioners may stand by during surgery to monitor the patient's condition.

Pulmonologists make an average annual salary of nearly $300,000, while those on the lower end of the pay spectrum earn approximately $193,000, and those on the higher end bring home up to $430,000.

Respiratory Therapists

The education requirements for respiratory therapists are generally lower than those for respiratory care practitioners. Most respiratory therapist positions require candidates to hold an associate degree, although some may mandate or prefer those with their bachelor's. Aspiring respiratory therapists can obtain the proper training through a college, university or vocational-technical institute, or through the Armed Forces. Many licensing bodies require candidates to hold their credentials from a program with accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care.

All states except Alaska offer their own specific licensure for respiratory therapists, and those in Alaska may pursue national licensure in lieu of a state-specific license, ideally through the National Board for Respiratory Care. These professionals assess, treat and care for patients who struggle with respiratory disorders, and assume responsibility for supervising respiratory therapy technicians. Respiratory therapist practitioners also select, assemble, check and operate equipment; maintain patient records; and initiate and conduct therapeutic procedures.

Most respiratory therapist practitioners work in general medical and surgical hospitals. Others may work in specialty hospitals, nursing care facilities or in rental and leasing services. These professionals earn a mean annual wage of $61,810, which breaks down to $29.72 per hour. The lowest 10th percentile of respiratory therapists earn $43,120 per year, while those in the 90th percentile earn up to $83,030 annually.


Brenna Swanston is a freelance writer, editor and journalist. She previously reported for the Sun newspaper in Santa Maria, California, and she holds a bachelor's in journalism from California Polytechnic State University.

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