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How to Become a Respiratory Therapist

In the dynamic field of healthcare, respiratory therapists stand out as vital specialists dedicated to patients with breathing difficulties—a role that has become increasingly critical in recent years due to the rise in respiratory diseases and pandemics affecting global health. Respiratory therapists specialize in evaluating, diagnosing, and treating patients across all age groups, from premature infants with undeveloped lungs to elderly patients struggling with lung disease. The following provides a detailed guide on how to become a respiratory therapist, detailing the educational path, certification, and dedication needed to succeed in this rewarding healthcare career.

Understanding the Role of a Respiratory Therapist

Respiratory therapists are healthcare professionals specializing in patient care for those inflicted with acute or chronic respiratory diseases. They work closely with doctors and nurses to develop treatment plans, administer respiratory therapies, and manage ventilators and other life-support systems. The scope of their work spans several conditions, including asthma, emphysema, pneumonia, cardiovascular disorders, and trauma. Respiratory therapists find employment in diverse settings, including hospitals, emergency rooms, neonatal units, and home healthcare services, making their role versatile and critical.

Educational Requirements

The journey to becoming a respiratory therapist begins with a solid educational foundation. High school students intent on this career path should focus on science-related classes such as biology, chemistry, and physics, along with mathematics. These subjects provide the necessary groundwork for understanding the more advanced topics covered in respiratory therapy programs.

Prospective respiratory therapists can choose between earning an Associate’s degree or a Bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy. Though an Associate’s degree is the minimum requirement for entry into the field, a Bachelor’s degree may offer better employment opportunities and is often necessary for advancement into leadership or specialized roles. It is crucial to enroll in programs recognized by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC), ensuring the education meets the high standards required for professional practice.

Admission into a Respiratory Therapy Program

Admission requirements for respiratory therapy programs typically include a high school diploma or equivalent, completion of prerequisite classes such as anatomy, physiology, and microbiology, and a minimum GPA. Some programs may also require observational hours in a healthcare setting to give applicants a glimpse into the profession. Preparing a strong application involves highlighting any healthcare-related experience, academic achievements, and a clear motivation for pursuing a career in respiratory therapy.

The Respiratory Therapy Curriculum

Respiratory therapy programs offer a blend of theoretical knowledge and practical expertise. The curriculum spans a wide scope of subjects including, but not limited to, human anatomy and physiology, pathophysiology, pharmacology, pulmonary rehabilitation, and respiratory health management. Clinical rotations form an essential part of the training, allowing students to gain hands-on experience under the supervision of experienced professionals in various healthcare settings.

Certification and Licensure

Upon completing an accredited program, graduates must obtain certification and licensure to practice as respiratory therapists. The Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) credential, awarded after successfully completing the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) examination, is the first step. Many therapists then pursue the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) credential, which requires additional examinations and is recognized as a standard for professional competency. Each state has its own licensure requirements, and respiratory therapists must adhere to these regulations and take part in continuing education to retain their credentials.

Gaining Experience and Specialization

Newly certified respiratory therapists often begin their careers in entry-level positions, gaining valuable experience that paves the way for specialization. The field of respiratory therapy offers various areas for specialization, including pediatrics, neonatal care, critical care, and sleep medicine. Specializing requires additional certification and demonstrates a therapist’s commitment to providing the highest level of care in specific areas of respiratory health.

Job Market and Career Advancement

The need for respiratory therapists is expected to increase significantly, driven by an aging population and the increasing prevalence of respiratory conditions. This demand ensures a robust job market for new graduates, with opportunities in hospitals, outpatient centers, and home health agencies. Networking with professionals in the field, attending industry conferences, and joining professional organizations can help in finding job opportunities and advancing one’s career. Respiratory therapists with experience and advanced education may move into leadership roles, education, research, or specialized clinical positions.

Challenges and Rewards of Being a Respiratory Therapist

A profession as a respiratory therapist is not without its challenges, including the physical demands of the job and the emotional toll of working with critically ill patients. However, the profession is also incredibly rewarding. Respiratory therapists have an active role in the recovery of their patients, often witnessing remarkable turnarounds in health. The satisfaction of making a tangible difference in patients’ lives, coupled with the stability and growth potential of the career, makes the challenges worthwhile.


Becoming a respiratory therapist requires a commitment to education, certification, and continuous learning. The path involves rigorous academic preparation, hands-on clinical training, and adherence to professional standards. However, for those passionate about making a difference in the lives of patients struggling with respiratory conditions, the journey is incredibly rewarding. Respiratory therapy offers a unique blend of technical skill, patient care, and the opportunity to specialize in areas of interest, providing a fulfilling career path with room for growth and advancement.

The role of a respiratory therapist is crucial in today’s healthcare landscape, where respiratory diseases are a leading cause of illness and hospitalization. As medical technology continues forward and the population ages, the need for skilled respiratory therapists is set to increase, highlighting the importance of this career in ensuring the health and well-being of communities worldwide.

For those considering a career in respiratory therapy, the path is clear: focus on science and mathematics during your high school education, choose an accredited respiratory therapy program for your tertiary education, obtain your certification and state licensure, and commit to lifelong learning and professional development. With commitment and hard work, you can join the ranks of respiratory therapists who play a vital role in healthcare teams, improving patient outcomes and saving lives.

The challenges of the job, while significant, are matched by the profound rewards of helping patients breathe easier. The sense of accomplishment that comes from aiding in the recovery of critically ill patients or providing ongoing care to those with chronic conditions is immeasurable. Moreover, the career offers stability, a competitive salary, and opportunities for advancement, making it an attractive option for those interested in the healthcare field.

In conclusion, becoming a respiratory therapist is a noble and achievable goal for those inspired by the prospect of a career dedicated to caring for patients with respiratory needs. By following the outlined steps and committing to excellence in education and patient care, aspiring respiratory therapists can look forward to a gratifying profession filled with opportunities to make a remarkable impact on individual lives and the broader health community.

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