What Is the Best Degree Path to Becoming a Respiratory Therapist?

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You don’t have to spend a huge number of years in school to make a difference in the field of health care. Some medical career opportunities start with a two-year degree. If you’re a compassionate and patient problem-solver and do well in math and science courses, you could prepare for a fulfilling respiratory therapist career in as little as twenty-four months. Respiratory therapists are specialized healthcare professionals who work directly with patients to evaluate and diagnose breathing problems. They help patients to breathe better, and they assist individuals with chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma and emphysema.

To become a respiratory therapist, one must complete the proper education and obtain licensing. Once you’ve earned the proper credentials, a highly favorable job outlook awaits. Below is the best degree path to becoming a respiratory therapist, along with relevant information regarding this unique healthcare career.

An Associate’s Degree

Respiratory therapists treat patients who have breathing difficulties, such as those with chronic respiratory diseases, lung injuries, or undeveloped lungs. They examine, test, and treat patients of all age groups who may have different conditions that affect their breathing. To learn how to complete the tasks required of respiratory therapists, one must obtain a formal education in respiratory care or respiratory therapy from an accredited college, university, vocational-technical institute, or Armed Forces training program.

Some respiratory therapists earn a bachelor’s degree, but an associate’s degree program is the typical entry-level education requirement for this career, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In either case, students should expect to complete coursework in subjects like anatomy, chemistry, mathematics, microbiology, pharmacology, physiology, and physics. Respiratory therapy and respiratory care degree programs familiarize students with the equipment, diagnostic tests, and assessment methods required for the role, as well as with standard CPR techniques. They also provide students with an opportunity to attain hands-on experience providing respiratory care through clinical experiences.

In preparation for entry into a respiratory therapy program, students should focus their high-school career on math- and science-heavy courses. High-school students should take classes in biology, chemistry, health science, mathematics, and physics. Having a background in these areas of study will help one succeed in collegiate courses.

Attaining a License and Certification

A degree in respiratory therapy is only the first step to entering this career. Nearly all states require respiratory therapists to attain some form of licensure. This often includes earning a passing score on a state exam. Additionally, many employers look for candidates who have professional certification. Earning and maintaining designations like the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) and the subsequent Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) credentials is important for success in respiratory therapist roles with many employers. To earn these certifications, candidates must typically meet minimum education and experience requirements, and they must pass additional exams. The main certifying body for this career is the National Board for Respiratory Care.

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A Bachelor’s Degree

While most respiratory therapists hold an associate’s degree, some employers prefer to hire those with a bachelor’s degree. Most colleges and universities do not offer a specific respiratory therapy bachelor’s degree, but rather a four-year degree in a particular science. However, there are some accredited institutions that offer RRT to BSRT programs. These programs are designed for respiratory therapists who want to advance their knowledge and skills with a bachelor’s in respiratory therapy. These programs may also be beneficial to RRTs seeking career advancement and more responsibility. Some employers favor RRTs with bachelor’s degrees by offering them competitive wages or pay raises. It is important to only seek respiratory therapy programs that are fully accredited.

Important Qualities for Respiratory Therapists

Respiratory therapists work closely with patients. They provide emotional support, help patients rehabilitate, and spend time with patients over the course of a long recovery journey. There are times when goals are met and other times when the work is designed to make a patient comfortable or less troubled. To carry out the day-to-day tasks of a respiratory therapist, certain qualities are essential. Below are a few qualities and soft skills that are important to have as aspiring respiratory therapists.

Compassion: As a healthcare provider, respiratory therapists provide emotional support to patients to which they are administering treatment. They must be patient, understanding, and empathetic to their patient’s needs. Therapists with a compassionate bedside manner help patients feel at ease and motivated to undergo treatment.

Communication skills: Since respiratory therapists work closely with patients and other healthcare professionals, it is important to have strong interpersonal and communication skills. Respiratory therapists must be able to follow instructions provided by a supervising physician and communicate them with their patients and colleagues. Respiratory therapists must also be able to work effectively as a part of a healthcare team that is designed to provide quality care to patients.

Detail-orientation: To ensure that patients receive quality care in a timely manner, a respiratory therapist must be detail-oriented. Also, since respiratory therapists have busy schedules and often juggle more than one patient at a time, they must be able to provide appropriate treatments and medications, monitor patient progress, and record important information related to patient care. All of these tasks require a detail-oriented and organized mind.

Patience: The role of a respiratory therapist requires long hours with patients who require special attention. As a result, respiratory therapists must be extremely patient when offering care and treatment services.

Problem-solving skills: Strong problem-solving skills are needed for the respiratory therapist role. Respiratory therapists are in charge of evaluating patient symptoms, consulting with doctors and healthcare specialists and making recommendations about treatment and care. All of these tasks require excellent problem-solving skills.

Stamina: Since respiratory therapists work on their feet for long periods of the day and often lift or turn incapacitated or disabled patients, good physical condition and stamina are needed. Also, because most respiratory therapists work in hospitals and medical facilities that are open twenty-four hours a day, many therapists can expect to work long hours on weekends, nights, and evenings.

In addition to the above qualities, strong math and science skills are also needed for the role of a respiratory therapist. While these skills may be taught in the classroom, it helps to have a strong background and understanding of anatomy, physiology, and even psychology. Math skills are needed when calculating the right dosages for patient’s medicine and administering medication in a timely manner.

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Earnings Potential for Respiratory Therapists

Respiratory therapists earn a median annual salary of $62,810, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) – significantly more than the $41,950 median salary for all occupations, especially considering that these professionals need just two years of education to begin their careers. The highest 10% of respiratory therapists, BLS reports, earn more than $89,000 per year, while the lowest 10% earn less than $46,000. Experience, geographic location, and industry type can affect wages for this occupation.

According to the BLS, the largest employer of respiratory therapists is also the top-paying industry. Local, private, and state hospitals pay the highest wages for respiratory therapists. In fact, respiratory therapists working in hospitals see median annual wages of $63,090. Other top-paying industries for this occupation include physician offices and nursing care facilities, such as skilled nursing facilities. In physicians’ offices, respiratory therapists earn a median annual wage of $61,160, and they earn $61,060 in nursing care facilities.

As mentioned above, geographic location can impact pay for respiratory therapists. According to the Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are five top-paying states for this occupation that offer higher-than-average wages. The highest-paying state, as reported by BLS, is California. In California, respiratory therapists earn an annual mean wage of $87,190, which is $24,380 higher than the total average earnings for all workers in this occupation. Other top-paying states with higher-than-average earnings include the District of Columbia ($82,940 annual mean wages), New York ($79,840), Hawaii ($77,930), and Nevada ($77,380).

In addition to high-paying states, there are top-paying metropolitan areas for respiratory therapists. Of the top 10 metro areas reported by BLS, nine are located in California. Current data shows that the area of San Francisco, Oakland, and Hayward, California offers the highest annual mean wage of all metro areas for respiratory therapists. In this area, RT’s earn an annual mean wage of $104,200. However, San Francisco is one of the costliest areas to live, due to exorbitant living costs. According to Quicken Loans, San Francisco’s median household income drops 50% when adjusted for cost of living. While the San Francisco metro area offers high wages for respiratory therapists, the cost of living offsets the higher-than-average wages. Other high-paying metro areas for this occupation include San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa, Clara, California ($100,710 annual mean wages); Vallejo and Fairfield, California ($100,080); Sacramento, Roseville, Arden, and Arcade, California ($99,760); and Salina, California ($99,750).

Annual wages for respiratory therapists are also high in some specific non-metropolitan areas, where the cost of living is less than metro areas. According to BLS, there are five top-paying non-metro areas for respiratory therapists. These areas are North Valley, Northern Mountains region of California ($85,450 annual mean wages); Alaska non-metro ($85,140); North Coast region of California ($84,740); Eastern Sierra, Mother Lode region of California ($80,010); and Capital and Northern New York non-metro area ($74,630).

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Job Outlook for Respiratory Therapists

An extremely positive job outlook is another benefit of this vocation. The BLS predicts faster-than-average job growth for respiratory therapists, with an anticipated 23 percent increase in career opportunities over the next 10 years. The average growth for all other occupations is eight percent, and the expected growth is 12 percent for healthcare diagnosing or treating practitioners. As a result, the job growth for respiratory therapists is significantly faster.

According to BLS, approximately 10,100 openings for respiratory therapists are anticipated over the next decade. These openings are expected to result from the growing need to replace individuals who retire or transfer to different occupations outside of respiratory therapy.

BLS reports that in 2020, about 135,000 jobs were held by respiratory therapists. The largest employer for those in this occupation is hospitals (local, private, and state). Approximately 82 percent of all respiratory therapists work for hospitals. Outside of hospitals, the largest employers of respiratory therapists are nursing care facilities, such as skilled nursing facilities and doctors’ offices. About four percent of all respiratory therapists work in nursing care facilities and two percent work in offices of physicians.

Another factor impacting growth in this occupation is an increase in respiratory conditions, such as COPD and pneumonia, in the middle-aged and older population. These diseases and conditions restrict breathing and lung function and can lead to permanent lung damage. The middle-aged and older population will rely on the services of respiratory therapists, especially those stationed in hospitals and urgent care facilities, for treatment of these issues. Also, as hospitals seek to reduce readmissions, there will be more demand for respiratory therapists to work in nursing homes, long-term care facilities, and doctors’ offices.

Growth is also expected in this occupation due to advances in disease detection and prevention, improved medications, and innovative treatments. These advances will increase the demand for workers in this occupation. Other issues creating demand and job growth for respiratory therapists include continued conditions that impact the general population, such as breathing and respiratory problems due to air pollution and smoking. While awareness of the dangers of smoking has heightened, the older population will still need care from damage done to their lungs over the years.

If you are a recent graduate of a respiratory therapy program, or if you are planning to enroll in one in the upcoming years, you should see a favorable job outlook for this career for at least the next decade. As a result, now is an ideal time to pursue a career in respiratory therapy.

BDP Staff
November 2021

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