What is a Respiratory Therapist?

A respiratory therapist specializes in the care of patients with respiratory or cardiopulmonary conditions. Respiratory therapists work with a variety of patients, from premature infants with underdeveloped lungs to elderly patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or heart failure. They evaluate and treat patients who have difficulty breathing, often working in collaboration with physicians and other healthcare providers to develop treatment plans.

Respiratory therapists may perform diagnostic tests, such as spirometry and arterial blood gas analysis, and provide treatments such as oxygen therapy, chest physiotherapy, and mechanical ventilation. They also provide patient education on how to manage their conditions and improve their respiratory health.

What does a Respiratory Therapist do?

A respiratory therapist checking a patient's lungs with a stethoscope.

Respiratory therapists are experts in diagnosing, treating, and managing various respiratory disorders. They help patients breathe easier and improve their lung function, particularly in cases of chronic conditions. By providing critical care in emergencies, managing ventilator support, and offering patient education, respiratory therapists contribute significantly to enhancing patients' overall respiratory health and quality of life.

Duties and Responsibilities
The duties and responsibilities of a respiratory therapist include:

  • Assessing Patients: Respiratory therapists evaluate patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders, perform diagnostic tests, and analyze the results to determine the appropriate treatment plans.
  • Administering Treatments: They administer medications and treatments to patients, such as oxygen therapy, bronchodilators, and chest physiotherapy, to improve lung function and manage respiratory conditions.
  • Operating Equipment: Respiratory therapists operate and maintain various medical equipment, including ventilators, oxygen delivery systems, and nebulizers, to assist patients with breathing difficulties.
  • Creating Care Plans: They collaborate with physicians to develop individualized care plans for patients, outlining the recommended treatments, interventions, and goals for managing respiratory issues.
  • Educating Patients: Respiratory therapists educate patients about their conditions, treatment options, and self-care techniques to help them better manage their respiratory health.
  • Monitoring Progress: They regularly monitor and assess patients' responses to treatments, adjusting therapies as needed and keeping accurate records of patients' progress.
  • Emergency Response: Respiratory therapists are often involved in emergency situations, such as assisting with intubations, managing patients on life support, and responding to code blue situations.
  • Collaboration: They work closely with other healthcare professionals, such as doctors, nurses, and medical technicians, to provide comprehensive care to patients with respiratory issues.
  • Patient Advocacy: Respiratory therapists advocate for patients' respiratory needs and work to ensure that appropriate care is provided throughout their treatment journey.
  • Continuing Education: Staying up-to-date with advancements in respiratory care and participating in continuing education to enhance their skills and knowledge is an essential responsibility.

Types of Respiratory Therapists
There are a few different types of respiratory therapists, each specializing in various aspects of respiratory care. Here are some of the common types:

  • Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT): This is the most common type of respiratory therapist. RRTs have advanced knowledge and skills in respiratory care and are often responsible for managing complex cases, performing advanced procedures, and providing critical care in areas like intensive care units (ICUs) and emergency departments.
  • Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT): CRTs have passed a certification exam that demonstrates their competence in basic respiratory therapy skills. While they might not have the advanced training of an RRT, they still play a vital role in providing respiratory care to patients.
  • Neonatal/Pediatric Respiratory Therapist: These specialists focus on providing respiratory care to infants and children who have breathing disorders or complications. They work in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) and pediatric units.
  • Adult Critical Care Respiratory Therapist: These therapists specialize in treating adult patients with severe respiratory issues, often in critical care settings like ICUs. They are skilled in managing ventilators, assisting with intubations, and providing life support.
  • Pulmonary Rehabilitation Therapist: These therapists work with patients who have chronic lung conditions, helping them improve their lung function and overall quality of life through exercise, education, and therapy.
  • Sleep Disorder Specialist: Respiratory therapists who specialize in sleep disorders work with patients who have conditions like sleep apnea. They conduct sleep studies, recommend treatments like continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), and help patients manage their sleep-related breathing issues.
  • Transport Respiratory Therapist: These therapists are responsible for providing respiratory care during patient transfers, such as from one hospital to another or between medical facilities.
  • Home Care Respiratory Therapist: These therapists work with patients who require ongoing respiratory care at home. They set up and educate patients on using home-based equipment like ventilators or oxygen therapy.

Are you suited to be a respiratory therapist?

Respiratory therapists have distinct personalities. They tend to be social individuals, which means they’re kind, generous, cooperative, patient, caring, helpful, empathetic, tactful, and friendly. They excel at socializing, helping others, and teaching. Some of them are also investigative, meaning they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive.

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What is the workplace of a Respiratory Therapist like?

The workplace of a respiratory therapist can vary depending on their specialization, the healthcare setting, and the specific duties they perform. Respiratory therapists have the flexibility to work in a variety of environments, ranging from hospitals and clinics to home care settings and research institutions.

In hospitals, respiratory therapists often find themselves at the forefront of critical care. They work in intensive care units (ICUs) alongside physicians and nurses, managing ventilator support for patients with severe respiratory issues, such as acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) or post-surgery complications. These therapists are skilled in assessing patients' conditions, adjusting ventilator settings, and responding swiftly to emergency situations, making their presence indispensable in high-pressure medical environments.

In addition to ICUs, respiratory therapists can be found in general medical and surgical units, where they provide respiratory care to patients with a variety of conditions, such as pneumonia, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). They collaborate with medical teams to develop and implement treatment plans, administer medications, and monitor patients' progress. These therapists also educate patients and their families about the importance of proper respiratory management and offer guidance on using inhalers, oxygen therapy, and other devices.

Respiratory therapists also play a significant role in pulmonary rehabilitation programs. In these settings, they work closely with patients who have chronic lung diseases to develop exercise routines and breathing techniques that improve lung function and overall well-being. This hands-on approach often involves one-on-one interactions, allowing therapists to build strong relationships with their patients while guiding them through their rehabilitation journey.

Some respiratory therapists choose to specialize in home care, where they provide respiratory services to patients in their own residences. They set up and monitor equipment like ventilators and oxygen systems, ensuring patients receive proper care even outside of medical facilities. This role requires effective communication and education skills to empower patients and their families to manage their conditions effectively at home.

Finally, respiratory therapists can also contribute to research and education in academic institutions. They may teach aspiring therapists, conduct studies to advance the field's knowledge, and develop new techniques or technologies to enhance respiratory care practices.

Frequently Asked Questions

Pros and Cons of Being a Respiratory Therapist

Here are some potential pros and cons of being a respiratory therapist:


  • Meaningful Impact: Respiratory therapists directly contribute to improving patients' quality of life by helping them manage and overcome respiratory conditions. The sense of fulfillment from positively impacting patients' health can be highly rewarding.
  • Diverse Work Settings: Respiratory therapists have the flexibility to work in various healthcare settings, including hospitals, clinics, home care, and even research and education. This diversity allows for career customization to match individual preferences.
  • Job Stability: The demand for respiratory therapists is expected to grow due to an aging population and an increased prevalence of respiratory disorders. This translates to good job prospects and potentially greater job security.
  • Variety in Duties: The role of a respiratory therapist involves a mix of clinical, technical, and patient education tasks. This variety can keep the work engaging and prevent monotony.
  • Personal Interaction: Respiratory therapists often work closely with patients, building meaningful relationships and providing direct care. This personal interaction can be fulfilling and emotionally rewarding.
  • Advancement Opportunities: With experience, respiratory therapists can pursue specialized certifications and move into roles like clinical specialists, educators, or supervisors, offering opportunities for career growth.


  • Emotional Challenges: Dealing with patients who have serious respiratory illnesses or facing life-threatening situations can be emotionally demanding and stressful.
  • Physically Demanding: The job may involve physically demanding tasks, such as lifting patients, moving equipment, and standing for extended periods, which can be tiring over time.
  • Shift Work: Many healthcare settings, especially hospitals, require respiratory therapists to work shifts, including evenings, weekends, and holidays, which can disrupt work-life balance.
  • Exposure to Infections: Respiratory therapists may be exposed to infectious diseases due to their close contact with patients with respiratory conditions, especially in high-risk environments like ICUs.
  • High-Stress Situations: Working in critical care units means encountering high-stress and high-pressure situations, such as emergencies and code blue scenarios, which can be mentally challenging.
  • Technical Complexity: Handling and troubleshooting various medical equipment, such as ventilators and monitoring devices, requires technical proficiency, and errors could have serious consequences.
  • Continuous Learning: The field of healthcare is ever-evolving, requiring respiratory therapists to engage in continuous learning to stay updated with new treatments, technologies, and guidelines.