What is a Respiratory Care Degree?

Respiratory care focuses on diagnosing, treating, and managing the care of patients that are suffering from breathing or cardiopulmonary (heart and lung) disorders. Respiratory therapists can help adults and children that have fallen victim to a heart attack or stroke, cancer, or premature birth. They often work alongside doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals, and are able to perform specific procedures that help to diagnose and evaluate a patient’s lung capacity and monitor their cardiopulmonary systems.

So, what type of person would this career be suitable for? Really, any person who wants to go into healthcare and who wants to help people. Giving the gift of oxygen to another human being can be extremely humbling and satisfying. However, it is good to remember that respiratory care programs do focus mainly on the maths and sciences, so this career may not be as well-suited for someone who is more inclined towards the arts.

Respiratory care graduates have opportunities to work as respiratory therapists, respiratory therapy technicians, pulmonary function technologists, or neonatal-pediatric specialists (depending on the level of education chosen). Medical courses such as cardiopulmonary physiology, respiratory pharmacology, and cardiopulmonary diagnostics are part of the curriculum, along with a fair amount of fieldwork.

Program Options

There are three (3) degrees that are associated with respiratory care:

Associate Degree in Respiratory Care - Two Year Duration
Coursework in an associate degree program introduces students to theories and the science of respiratory therapy and teaches clinical techniques for use with adults, children, and infants. Clinical rotations in various specialty areas are offered, allowing students to practise their skills in real-life situations. In addition to courses specific to the field of respiratory therapy, there are courses in college-level algebra, English composition, public speaking, and psychology.

Bachelor’s Degree in Respiratory Care - Four Year Duration
It is important to enrol in a program accredited by the Commission of Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC). Completing a four-year bachelor’s degree program over a two-year associate degree program gives prospective respiratory therapists a competitive edge. Bachelor degree programs focus on mathematics, anatomy, physiology, chemistry, physics, and pharmacology. Courses specific to the field teach diagnostic testing, clinical respiratory care, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and the use of respiratory therapy equipment.

Master’s Degree in Respiratory Care - Two Year Duration
Respiratory therapists who have earned a bachelor’s degree may wish to advance their degree to a master’s degree in respiratory therapy. Some programs require at least one year of respiratory care work experience. The master’s degree program is a mix of respiratory therapy specific courses as well as courses that focus on education, research, management, and/or health policy.

Respiratory therapy specific courses may include: emergency medicine, pharmacology, pediatric respiratory care, mechanical ventilation, cardiopulmonary pathophysiology, and medical terminology. This advanced degree can open doors to careers in management, education, or research.

Respiratory therapists must complete a credentialing exam from the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). There are many different certifications, however most therapists choose one of the following two certifications:

  • The Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT), or
  • The Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT)

Every state except Alaska requires respiratory therapists to be licensed in their home state. The requirement for licensure is being certified by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). Respiratory therapists must renew their licenses - requirements vary by state.

Degrees Similar to Respiratory Care

Nurses help people by contributing to their health, recovery, or peaceful death, and strive to achieve the best possible quality of life for their patients, regardless of disease or disability. They also advocate in healthcare for individuals, families, and communities. The educational path for becoming a nurse varies depending on the type of nurse one hopes to become. An associate degree takes two to three years, a bachelor’s degree takes four years, and a master’s degree is an additional two years. It is good to note that employers are more apt to hire a nurse with a bachelor’s degree because they receive a more in-depth education.

Many of the university courses for students pursuing a nursing degree are challenging. Classes are focused on science and mathematics, medical terminology and biology, and many hours of studying and memorizing can be expected. Every state requires students to graduate from an approved nursing degree program in order to become licensed.

Occupational Therapy
An occupational therapist enables people to become more productive and overcome obstacles when experiencing difficulties attempting to do everyday activities. They do this by helping patients with injuries, illnesses, or disabilities develop, recover, and improve the skills needed for daily living and working.

Many prospective occupational therapists complete a bachelor’s program in a discipline like biology, kinesiology, health science, psychology, or sociology. While five-year accelerated, combined bachelor’s/master’s bridge programs exist, the majority of students intending to work as occupational therapists follow four years of undergraduate study with a standalone two-year master’s program.

Physical Therapy
Physical therapists diagnose and treat people of all ages who have injuries, medical problems or other health-related conditions that limit their ability to function and move properly in their daily lives. With their specialized training, they are able to treat health conditions such as: arthritis, back and neck pain, joint injuries, cerebral palsy, fibromyalgia, balance issues, cystic fibrosis, muscle strains, osteoporosis, sports injuries, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, birth defects, Parkinson’s disease, post-operative rehabilitation, fractures, carpal tunnel syndrome, and chronic pain.

Physical therapy programs require a bachelor’s degree for admission and specific prerequisites, such as anatomy, physiology, biology, and chemistry. In addition to the four years spent completing an undergraduate degree, there is an additional three years of a DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy) program, for a total of seven years of university education.

Skills You’ll Learn

There are several hard and soft skills that are required in order to become a successful respiratory care therapist. Students quickly learn what skills they are expected to cultivate, especially during clinical rotations.

  • Mobility
  • Five Senses (Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, and Touch)
  • Fine Motor Ability
  • Gross Motor Ability
  • Physical Endurance
  • Physical Strength
  • Reading & Comprehension
  • Science and Math
  • Emotional Stability
  • Analytical Thinking
  • Critical Thinking
  • Interpersonal
  • Communication
  • Compassion
  • Attention to Detail
  • Patience
  • Reasoning
  • Problem-Solving

What Can You Do with a Respiratory Care Degree?

A respiratory care degree can provide opportunities to work in a variety of health care areas and settings, such as:

  • Acute Care Hospitals
  • Diagnostic Laboratories
  • Sleep Disorder Centres
  • Rehabilitation Centres
  • In-Home Patient Care
  • Patient Transport Systems
  • Physicians’ Offices
  • Convalescent Centres
  • Retirement Centres
  • Wellness Centres
  • Educational Institutions
  • Medical Device Manufacturing


See which schools are the most and least expensive.

Read about Tuition