How To Become A Respiratory Therapist

Becoming a respiratory therapist requires an Associate’s degree by most employers. Completing a program and getting certified can prepare you for a career that offers a good salary, benefits, and a chance to grow!

nurse at work

This guide to becoming a respiratory therapist covers everything you need to know about working in this field. From education requirements to salary information, we cover it all to help you decide if it might be a career option for you. 

Key Takeaways

  • Respiratory therapists treat patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders and work in a fast-paced environment that requires good communication skills and the ability to multitask.
  • To become a respiratory therapist, you must complete an approved respiratory therapy program at the associate’s or bachelor’s degree level, pass the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) exam, and meet certification and licensing requirements. 
  • Respiratory therapists can earn salaries upwards of $60,000 per year and the job outlook is very strong for the next  10 years.  

What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

Respiratory therapists are responsible for helping patients breathe easier. 

You will use your knowledge of the respiratory system and medical equipment to clear airways and monitor oxygen levels.

Daily duties may include:

  • Assessing patients’ conditions with diagnostic testing
  • Administering respiratory treatments
  • Monitor patient progress
  • Consulting with physicians and family members

You can also choose to work in work in specific areas like dealing with sleep apnea or assist with those that might want to quit smoking. 

You can expect to work in a fast-paced environment that requires good communication skills and the ability to multitask. You will need to respond quickly to emergencies or sudden changes in a patient’s condition.

The medical field offers a few other great career opportunities like Sterile Process Technician and Emergency Medical Technician if you want to look at other opportunities.

How To Become A Respiratory Therapist

This field requires individuals to have at least an associate degree in respiratory therapy from an accredited institution. Most programs require at least two-years of education.

A bachelor’s or master’s degree (which can take four years to complete) may be required by some employers. A four-year degree program in respiratory care can increase your career prospects and earning potential. 

Below are the recommended steps to becoming a certified respiratory therapist.

High School Diploma or GED

A high school diploma or GED is required.

Attend An Accredited Program

Most accredited programs are 2-4 years. Community colleges are a great choice, but it is important to make sure the program is approved by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care.

Certifications

Once you complete a training program you can then sit for the NBRC exams. These exams allow you to become certified (CRT) or registered (RRT) as a therapist.

Licensing

All states, except Alaska, require licensing.

Attend An Accredited Respiratory Therapy Program

The first step to become a registered respiratory therapist is to find a respiratory therapy education program, that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC).  These programs meet national standards set by the American Medial Association and prepare students for certification exams.

Once you select a school to attend you will complete a mix of classes and clinical experience.

Some of what you can expect during your education includes:

  • Respiratory system anatomy where you will learn how the respiratory system works. This includes how the lungs function and are structured to work with airways and other organs.
  • Respiratory diseases and illnesses that affect patients. You will be provided details on illnesses like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, pneumonia, or respiratory infections.
  • Patient assessment so you can learn how to properly evaluate respiratory functions and conduct and read diagnostic tests.
  • Treatment modalities that are often used to treat patients. This part of the education may include learning about mechanical ventilation, physiotherapy, oxygen therapy, or bronchodilators.
  • Practice respiratory therapy techniques will allow you the opportunity to get the hands on experience you need to properly care for patients.

Ready to get started on your new career? Check out a full list of programs here.

respiratory therapist at work

Respiratory Therapist Certifications

Once you complete your associate’s degree in respiratory care, you can then sit for exams that are offered by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). 

There are two exams available:

  • Therapist Multiple-Choice Exam (TMC)
  • Clinical Simulation Examination (CSE)

In order to take the CSE exam, you must pass the TMC exam with a high cut score. The CSE exam is required to become registered. 

Passing these exams can result in the following:

  • Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) – this is a required exam that will allow you to prove your skills and become certified. 
  • Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) – this is an optional exam that will certify you to work as a registered therapist which can result in higher wages and better job opportunities. 

You can also choose to become a respiratory specialist in a variety of areas and earn additional CRT and RRT credentials. 

  • Adult Critical Care Specialist (RRT-ACCS) 
  • Sleep Disorders Specialist (CRT-SDS)
  • Neonatal/Pediatric Specialist (RRT-NPS)
  • Certified Pulmonary Function Technologist (CPFT)
  • Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist (RPFT)

Radiation therapist is another option if you are feeling like respiratory is not your thing!

Respiratory Therapist State Licensing Requirements 

Respiratory therapists need licensure in every state (except for Alaska). 

Each state has its own licensing requirements, but most require passing one or more licensing exams after completing a formal program and obtaining certification from NBRC. 

You can get a list of contact information by state here. You can contact the board of respiratory care for your state to get more information on the specific requirements. 

Once licensed, it’s important to keep up with continuing education requirements in order to maintain your license and stay current in the field of respiratory therapy. 

Respiratory Therapist Salary Information

Salaries for therapists can vary based on factors such as location, level of education, experience, employer type (e.g., hospital vs. home care), and shift differential pay if working non-traditional hours. Respiratory workers earn higher than average wages for a career that only requires 2-years of education and training.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for respiratory therapists was $70,540 as of May 2022.

The top paying states include:

  • California
  • New York
  • Alaska
  • District of Columbia
  • Washington

Researching average salaries for your area can help you negotiate a fair compensation package once you secure a position. Below are the range of salaries on average across the US.

Lowest 10%
Median
Highest 90%

Respiratory Therapist Job Outlook 

The demand for respiratory therapists is strong and currently there is actually a shortage of workers. This means a lot of opportunity to earn great wages and work wherever you may want to.

The demand for sterile processing technicians is pretty good with an expected 14% growth through 2031 as noted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many of these opportunities are due to retirement or people changing careers, but new jobs are also happening due to growth in the aging population.

Pursue Continuing Education and Professional Development

You can take your career  to the next level by pursuing continuing respiratory therapy education and professional development opportunities. These will help you stay up-to-date with the latest advancements in respiratory care, expand your skill set, and increase your earning potential.

As a healthcare provider, it’s essential to keep up with new technologies, equipment, treatment options, and best practices. Below are a few ways to make sure you stay on top of the changes. 

  • Attend industry conferences where you can hear from experts on new research findings or emerging technologies for patients with respiratory conditions. Telehealth, wearable respiratory devices, and new treatments are important to keep up on.
  • Enroll in professional development courses or certification programs that focus on specific areas of respiratory care such as critical care, pediatrics, or sleep disorders.
  • Network with others in the industry either in-person or online.

By investing time and money into your education, you show commitment to your profession while increasing your chances of advancing in your career.

Is Respiratory Therapy The Right Career For You?

So, you now know all you need to know about the career, but you may still be wondering if it is the right path for you! 

We get it, choosing a career, investing in school, and spending time learning new skills without knowing if you will even like it is scary.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself before taking the leap!

  • Do you get excited about a job that requires helping people?
  • Can you communicate well with all types of people (doctors, patients, coworkers, etc.)
  • Are you easily affected by blood or bodily fluids?
  • Does the thought of working nights, holidays, or weekends bother you?
  • Do you have the time and finances to get through two years of education?
  • Will you dedicate time for ongoing education and credentialing that might be needed?

How you answer these can give you some insight into whether you should consider working as a therapist. 

Resources

Below are a few additional resources and links to articles to help you learn more about this career.