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How to Become a Respiratory Therapist in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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People suffering from emphysema, asthma, and other respiratory conditions turn to a respiratory therapist for help. However, before a respiratory therapist can be qualified to work in a hospital or other health care facility, they kick off their professions by earning a bachelor’s degree or an associate degree

After graduating from a respiratory therapy program, respiratory therapists can advance their careers by acquiring state certifications or licensure under their belt. 

A respiratory therapist mainly works in private, state, and local hospitals, examining patients and teaching them how to use breathing equipment. Additionally, the job calls for collaboration with physicians. 

Respiratory therapists administer patient care to people of all ages, from the elderly to infants. According to the BLS, employment in respiratory therapy is expected to increase by 19% by 2029. Keeping that in mind, we’ll explore everything you need to know how to become a respiratory therapist. 

Skills a Respiratory Therapist Needs

Respiratory therapy entails having an interest in the aspects of helping, building, and thinking. The building aspect revolves around working with machines, tools and fixing or making practical things. 

The thinking aspect entails increasing, investigating, and researching the understanding of natural laws. The helping interest means specializing in teaching, counseling, assisting, or serving others. 

If you have some reservations as to whether you have a helping, building, or thinking interest which might blend with a profession in respiratory therapy, you can find career tests online to accurately measure your interests. 

A registered respiratory therapist or a respiratory therapy technician should also possess the following traits. 

Critical Thinking 

Every day, a successful respiratory therapist must identify cause-effect relationships in their working environment. While synthesizing knowledge, they must sequence information and adapt to their decisions based on changes that crop up. 

As you provide patient care, you’ll need to effectively and concisely share treatment options and answer any queries they may have. Additionally, you’ll need to listen to the concerns and needs of each patient and colleague and respond with appropriate feedback to guarantee mutual understanding. 

Problem-Solving 

The respiratory therapist job description also includes consulting other healthcare professionals, administering or recommending the best treatments, and evaluating patient symptoms. If solving puzzles tickles your fancy, then it’s a no-brainer that problem-solving is one of the respiratory therapist skills that may come to you easier than others. 

Technical Respiratory Therapist Skills

With great education, you’ll be prepared to work as a respiratory technician. Every day, a respiratory therapist must apply the technical skills required to meet the daily demands of the profession. You’ll need to know how to work with medical supplies and equipment. Some of the technical aspects of a respiratory care professional include (but not limited to): 

  1. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation
  2. Chest physiotherapy 
  3. Oxygen administration
  4. Administering lung medication 
  5. Measuring lung function 
  6. Monitoring cardiopulmonary systems 
  7. Management of mechanical ventilators 

Interpersonal Skills 

Respiratory therapy involves interacting with patients and typically working as part of a team. The respiratory therapist job description means you must have the ability to follow instructions to the letter from a supervising physician and have sufficient ‘bedside etiquette’ when it comes to providing patient care. 

Math and Science Skills 

Having a respiratory therapist degree means you have a solid grasp of sciences such as physiology and anatomy, in addition to the ability to measure the right dosage of a patient medication as there’s no room for error. 

Other crucial qualities required in a respiratory therapist resume that will give you an edge in your career are:

Compassion

You must be compassionate to patients and their loved ones. 

Detail-Orientation 

You’ll need to be keen on detail to ensure that patients are tended to in a timely fashion and that their assessments and treatments are conducted with utmost accuracy. After all, a slight error can be fatal. 

Patience 

There’s a high likelihood that you’ll attend to patients with special needs who require special care and, in turn, extra attention for an extended period. 

Sensitivity 

Just as you require being compassionate to patients and their loved ones, you need to show sensitivity to their comfort levels and needs. 

Degrees in Respiratory Care

Completing a GED or high school diploma is the first step towards becoming a respiratory therapist. It depicts a commitment to completing a respiratory therapy program in addition to a fundamental level of education. 

High school courses in advanced math, anatomy, chemistry, and biology are recommended. Furthermore, students can pursue tests and AP courses to receive college or university credit before graduation. 

As an acronym for the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care, COARC maintains stringent standards for a respiratory therapy program. A respiratory care program is available in most states and takes anywhere between two years and six years. 

Typically, a respiratory therapy program requires that a student completes an associate degree of science or applied science. However, you might stumble upon a respiratory care program that calls for a 4-year Bachelor of Science. 

Students that wish to advance their learning can take their pick from the various master’s degrees in respiratory care programs available across the US. Attending an accredited degree program means it’ll be smooth sailing for students on the path towards acquiring licensure. 

There’s no denying that a respiratory therapy program within the accrediting associations makes it easier to apply for transfer credits, acquiring higher degrees in respiratory care, and applying for financial aid. 

Throughout the study, a student learns how to collect and analyze clinical data, communicate effectively with patients and their families, and conduct diagnostic and therapeutic procedures. A practicing RRT earns a bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy as it paves the way for a wealth of career and employment opportunities, for instance, specializing in respiratory art therapy

It’s these programs that are geared towards preparing students to earn certifications via the National Board for Respiratory Care (NRBC). It provides the following credentials that are regarded as the standards to acquire a license. 

  • Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT)
  • Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT)

As a requirement in all states, a licensed respiratory care practitioner must earn the CRT certification. Nonetheless, there’s nationwide momentum towards requiring every respiratory therapist in the US to hold the RRT credential. Furthermore, the NBRC administers specialty credentials in various specializations such as: 

Going on to earn a master’s degree in respiratory therapy is a path pursued by many experienced respiratory therapists. According to the AARC, there’s a wealth of professional and personal perks that come with earning an advanced degree in respiratory therapy. 

With an advanced degree, a respiratory care practitioner is eligible for various roles such as a clinical specialist or disease manager and can provide a foundation to become a researcher, manager, or formal educator.  

Many employers may provide tuition assistance for their staff on the quest to earn a master’s degree or bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy. Furthermore, AARC offers information on respiratory therapy loans and scholarships. Other networking strategies and careers that the AARC recommends are:

  • Get involved with your state society to network and meet other respiratory therapists. It can include opportunities to volunteer alongside a respiratory therapist who might also be a decisive leader in your city or state.
  • Attend respiratory therapy conferences. These national, local, and state gatherings of respiratory therapists can usher in networking opportunities while keeping your knowledge fresh.
  • Attend and volunteer for health fairs or career-specific events such as the Drive4COPD.
  • Reach out to the HR department of your dream organization for an informational interview. Doing so will give you an excellent opportunity to gain insight into the organization and look for a respiratory therapist. 

Credentialing Examinations for Respiratory Therapists

Candidates who are at least the age of 18 and have completed a master’s, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree from a COARC-accredited respiratory therapy program can apply to sit for the TMC Examination to become a certified respiratory therapist (CRT) through the Care NBRC. As a 3-hour assessment, it critically evaluates a student’s ability, skills, and knowledge as an aspiring respiratory care professional. 

To apply and acquire an RRT credential, you’ll need to fill out a paper or online application and turn it in along with a stipulated fee that varies from one state to another. If you’re approved, a link will be sent to the email address you included in your application, coupled with a toll-free number to schedule your test.

It’s worth noting that the assessment must be scheduled and taken within a 90-day window after receiving eligibility approval, or a new fee and application must be submitted. There’s no deadline to apply, which means students can turn in their applications whenever they’re eligible. 

On the examination day, students should arrive on time at their testing center. To be admitted for the assessment, they’ll need to provide two forms of identification, one of which must be a photo ID. Once your belongings are tucked away in a locker, you’re provided with a piece of scratch paper and a pencil. 

You’ll then be directed to the computer you’ll use to take the test. You have free rein to take a practice test before the assessment. The time taken on the practice test won’t impact the time permitted for the formal test. 

When the 3-hour test is in session, students must answer 160 questions, out of which 140 are scored. The remaining 20 are pre-test questions used to test new questions and don’t impact your final score. 

The results of the test are instant upon completion. For the assessment, you can receive a ‘high cut score’ which qualifies you to sit for the Clinical Simulation Exam (CSE) provided you’ve met other requirements for the test, or a ‘low cut score’  that credentials you as a CRT. 

Although detailed content on the clinical simulation test is available from the NBRC, students can expect to be examined on:

  • Patient conditions
  • Infection control, quality control of equipment, and troubleshooting
  • Modification and initiation of interventions
  • Patient data recommendations and evaluations 

The NBRC offers free practice tests that come in handy in preparing students for the assessment. Additionally, you can invest extra bucks on the Self-Assessment Exam (SAE) that mimics the formal exam in readiness for the TMC exam. 

All states except Alaska require a certified respiratory therapist to be licensed to practice. In most states, acquiring licensure can be done after passing the TMC exam, submitting an on-paper or online application, and paying a required fee. 

Furthermore, some states require a criminal background check. Keep in mind that requirements differ by state. Therefore, caution should be exercised to make sure all the qualifications are met. To obtain and use your credentials as a registered respiratory therapist (RRT), you must pass the Clinical Simulation Exam and TMC Exam. 

The former is a clinical simulation exercise designed to gauge a student’s aptitude as a registered respiratory therapist. For New Mexico, Arizona, New Jersey, Ohio, California, and Oregon, an RRT credential is required to receive licensure. Students who have completed an associate degree from a respiratory therapy program with accreditation from the COARC and received a ‘high cut score’ on the TMC can apply for eligibility to take the CSE examination. 

Nonetheless, they must complete the stipulated requirements for their RRT credential within three years of graduating, failure to which they must retake the TMC exam with a new ‘high cut score’ to qualify for the CSE test. 

To apply, fill out an on-paper or online application and submit it alongside a given fee. After approval, you’ll receive a toll-free number or link to schedule the test. You must schedule and sit for the test within three months of approval; otherwise, a new application must be turned in, including the fee. 

Respiratory Therapist Salary and Job Outlook

When it comes to the career outlook, the average annual salary of a respiratory therapist was $62,810, which translates to $30.20 per hour. As with any profession, geographical location and experience affect salaries. 

According to the BLS, respiratory therapists who work in healthcare facilities such as hospitals take home a median annual salary of about $62,000. Those working in physician offices earn an average yearly salary of $61,120. In contrast, a professional who provides respiratory care in nursing facilities takes home $59,260 every year, on average. 

Earnings increase as a registered respiratory therapist gains experience pursues higher learning, and earns certifications. The top 10% of respiratory therapists take home an average annual salary of $86,980, whereas the lowest 10% earn an average of $44,850 yearly. The BLS anticipates a 19% growth in respiratory therapy occupations by 2029, translating to about 26,300 new jobs in the field. The elderly are expected to be the main drivers of the need for licensed respiratory therapists to treat age-related conditions that impact the lungs, for instance, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. 

Furthermore, there’s an expected increase in demand for qualified professionals to provide respiratory care in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes to significantly lower the incidences of readmission to medical facilities from these conditions. 

Advances in medications and care treatments should also trigger the greater demand for CRTs trained in these methods. The BLS also reports that a respiratory therapist willing to travel to remote areas lacking licensed CRTs may have better job opportunities compared to a respiratory therapist looking to be gainfully employed in urban areas with an increased saturation for licensed CRTs. 

Courses in Respiratory Therapy Programs

The education of a respiratory therapist includes a broad curriculum that enhances their skills in argumentative writing, persuasive writing, critical thinking, and technical knowledge of respiratory care. Various factors affect the course load of a student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy. 

Curriculum requirements also vary from one educational institution to another. Moreover, a student’s previous coursework affects the classes they enroll in. Undergraduates without college or university credits start by taking general education units such as human anatomy and chemistry before taking major courses. 

Schooling for respiratory therapy equips learners with the much-needed practical skills in leadership and case management. They also hone particular technical skills such as preparing artificial airways through endotracheal suctioning and intubation, evaluating chest radiographs, and conducting cardiopulmonary stress testing that qualify them to become a respiratory therapy technician. 

Before graduating, you can complete a clinical simulation and rotations to test out your skills in a health care environment. 

Let’s explore some of the courses that students usually take after enrolling in a respiratory therapy program. 

Critical Care

It covers the practical techniques used in cardiovascular treatment, such as cardiovascular management, nasal oxygen supplementation, and cardiac life support. A course in critical care also teaches an undergraduate how to diagnose sleep apnea and other common breathing problems. 

Leadership and Ethics

A respiratory therapist handles confidential patient information. The profession calls for a rigorous understanding of privacy laws and professional ethics. In this course, students learn how to effectively make ethical choices and manage crises as they crop up. The practical skills learners gain in leadership and ethics allow them to progress to managerial roles. 

Pediatric Care

Learners enrolled in this course gain profound knowledge on diagnosing and treating adolescents, children, and infants. You acquire skills in high-risk births, common diagnosis, and therapeutic gases. The coursework is particularly useful for a respiratory therapist whose goal is to specialize in neonatal intensive care (NIC). 

Introduction to Clinical

Throughout their education, a respiratory therapist completes clinical experiences. An introduction to the clinical course allows students in a clinical environment to learn from healthcare professionals with decades of experience under their belt. 

Learners get to network and gain practical training in respiratory therapy. Universities and colleges require students to complete a drug screening and background check before enrolling in the course. 

Respiratory Case Management

It covers the basics of case management. Throughout the course, learners advance their knowledge of respiratory ailments such as cardiopulmonary disorders. Additionally, students study legal standards, privacy, and ethics. 

Choosing the Best Respiratory Therapist Program

Typically, regional community colleges and reputable universities offer Associate of Applied Science degrees in respiratory care or similar degrees, allowing you to narrow down educational decisions. 

Nonetheless, that degree path doesn’t usually work for students who opt for a bachelor’s degree to diversify their career options. Before hastily enrolling in a respiratory care program, consider the following factors to ensure you choose the best option for you.  

1. Is The Program Well-Accredited?

While there’s a myriad of universities and colleges that offer respiratory care programs, it might be necessary for students to complete a program that has been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care as a prerequisite for a respiratory therapist license in their home state. 

According to the National Board of Respiratory Care (NBRC), a certified respiratory therapist must have completed a minimum of 62 semester hours of college or university credits from a program with accreditation from an agency recognized by the Council for Higher Education or the US Department of Education. 

The US Department of Health and Human Services acknowledges accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs and the COARC. Before enrolment, check with the respiratory care board of your home state to ensure you grasp the scope of educational requirements. 

2. Tuition Cost 

College tuition is pricey. According to the College Board’s Higher Education survey conducted every year, the average tuition at a public two-year college for the 2017 to 2018 academic year was $3,570. The average tuition at a public 4-year university was slightly below the $10,000 mark. 

For private universities, the tuition can soar to $34,000 annually. Therefore, it’s important to understand the fee structure from your prospective school before making any long-term commitment. 

3. Program Length 

Most associate degree programs run for two years, whereas a standard bachelor’s degree program usually takes four years to complete. Students can shave some time by completing an accelerated degree program, online classes, and summer and winter seasons that allow them to progress through the coursework faster. 

 4. Delivery Method

There’s a multitude of ways to complete a degree program in today’s digital era. You can enroll in a hybrid program that entails splitting time between on-campus and online study, online programs, and conventional on-campus learning, depending on the ideal fit for your day-to-day. 

How to Apply For a State License as a Respiratory Therapist

Once you earn the RRT or CRT credential, you can apply for a respiratory therapist license by adhering to the following stipulations. 

1. Educational Requirements

An applicant for licensure must complete an education program for respiratory care that has been awarded a minimum of an associate degree from a university or college accredited by a regional accreditation agency or acknowledged by the US Department of Education. The program must also be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs

The board may waive its educational requirements if the evidence is presented and is deemed as adhering to the current educational requirements that will guarantee the competent and safe practice of respiratory care. The evidence can include (but is not limited to):

  • A good standing of licensure in another state
  • Work experience 

2. Examination Requirements

After completing your accredited respiratory care program, you’re eligible to apply for assessment directly through the National Board of Respiratory Care (NBRC). 

Effective as of January 2015, the first exam you sit is the Therapist Multiple-Choice (TMC) Examination that is designed to objectively measure the abilities, skills, and knowledge required of an entry-level respiratory therapist in addition to determining the eligibility for the Clinical Simulation Exam. 

After passing the TMC and Clinical Simulation Exam, you earn the RRT credential and meet the examination requirement for licensure. 

All applicants must complete a Professional Ethics Course coupled with a Board-approved law before licensure. The national board has approved two professional ethics and law courses, developed independently by the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC)

They are available virtually in real-time on specified dates. Each of the approved courses takes 3 hours and comprises the following subject areas:

  • Obligations of a licensed respiratory care practitioner to patients under their care
  • Duties of a registered respiratory therapist to report illegal activities that take place in the workplace
  • Acts that jeopardize licensure status and licensure 

It’s worth noting that only one professional ethics and law course must be completed before licensure (the AARC’s or CSRC’s course). Before deciding the course to take, applicants are encouraged to visit the providers’ websites to review extra information as it pertains to the administration of each course. 

You can then opt for the course provider that would be best suited for you. Before receiving a state license, you must provide the national board with a copy of a Certificate of Completion from the CSRC or AARC verifying that you completed the mandatory course. 

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