What are the Different Respiratory Therapist Careers?

Carol Francois

There are four different respiratory therapist careers: outpatient care, acute care, teaching, and department manager. A respiratory therapist is a member of the health services team specially trained in respiratory illness and conditions. In the United States, all therapists must pass the Certified Respiratory Therapist Exam (CRT). This written exam is organized by the National Board for Respiratory Care and tests the candidates’ knowledge of respiratory system, treatments, and their assessment skills.

The respiratory and abdominal organs.
The respiratory and abdominal organs.

Most respiratory therapist careers start in outpatient care. A home health care or government agency employs respiratory therapists to treat patients with long-term chronic respiratory diseases. These patients can live in their own homes, long-term care facilities, or rehabilitation centers. A driver’s license is very useful for this first career opportunity, as the therapist is required to travel to the client's location.

A respiratory therapist may treat patients with long-term, chronic respiratory diseases.
A respiratory therapist may treat patients with long-term, chronic respiratory diseases.

Acute care respiratory therapists work in emergency departments of large hospitals. They are called in to evaluate patients with chronic respiratory distress, difficulty breathing, or a breathing related injury. As a specialist in the respiratory system, she is able to quickly assess the situation and determine if there are any immediate steps that can be taken to reduce discomfort and help the patient.

Individuals who are morbidly obese may experience breathing difficulties.
Individuals who are morbidly obese may experience breathing difficulties.

After a minimum of ten years working experience, many people expand their respiratory therapist careers into teaching. Instructor opportunities are available in community and career colleges. In order to qualify for these opportunities, it is a good idea to complete a certificate in adult education. This additional training provides the techniques necessary to become an effective instructor.

Acute care respiratory therapists are responsible for evaluating patients with chronic respiratory distress.
Acute care respiratory therapists are responsible for evaluating patients with chronic respiratory distress.

Additional training is often required to advance respiratory therapist careers to management level positions. Relevant programs include a master of business administration (MBA) degree, or a certificate in management. Both these training opportunities can be completed part time, during the evening and weekend hours. There are multiple opportunities to expand and enhance your career, but it is important to realize that all careers will have an aspect of patient interaction. People who report the highest degree of satisfaction with respiratory therapist careers enjoy helping others, are responsible, and have a deep commitment to service.

Although many of their tasks are performed independently, the respiratory therapist is part of the health services team. It is important to have strong communication and teamwork skills to succeed in this role. Patients who rely on respiratory therapy are medically fragile, or suffer with multiple conditions. Coordination and communication helps both the patient and the rest of the team ensure that the appropriate level of care is provided.

A respiratory therapist may choose to work with babies.
A respiratory therapist may choose to work with babies.

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Discussion Comments


I am pursuing a respiratory therapist career. I have read statistics that indicate that the demand for workers in this field will grow a lot in the coming years.

Basically, as people age, they tend to develop lung problems that require respiratory therapy. Since people are always getting older, there will always be a need for therapists who can assist them with their breathing issues.

Also, the science of the treatment is expanding. New techniques, equipment, and inhalers are being introduced, and someone has to teach people how to use them. The knowledge of a respiratory therapist can save so many lives.


My neighbor is a respiratory therapist who works with infants. She helps the ones who are premature the most, because they often do not have the ability to breathe on their own.

Sometimes, she has to place them on ventilators. Depending on their age, some may be able to breathe mostly on their own but require close monitoring. If they stop breathing, she will first try a mask with an inflating bag attached, which she pumps by hand.

The parents of newborns look to her to keep their babies alive. They are always very emotional, and she has had to learn to detach her emotions from the situation in order to think clearly. She still cares and has compassion on the patients, but she has to maintain a medical perspective.


@seag47 – Compassion is such an important quality for a respiratory therapist to have. The people that he or she treats are often struggling for a breath, and it is essential that they have a caring person in the room to assist them.

My uncle had cystic fibrosis. His mucus was very thick, and it would clog up his lungs, making it nearly impossible for him to breathe. He had to cough the stuff up nearly all the time, and he was absolutely miserable.

I know that having a caring acute care respiratory therapist at his side in the hospital helped him. When you are struggling to stay alive, knowing that you are being treated by someone who cares whether you live or die is so important.


My grandfather struggled with emphysema for years. He couldn't stay in a hospital the entire time, so he had an outpatient therapist come to his house to care for him.

She would visit him from time to time to offer any help she could give. Also, he called her whenever he had extremely bad trouble breathing.

She was very reliable and knowledgeable about her field. She helped make him as comfortable as he could be in his last years.

He eventually had to move into a nursing home. She was there with him when he took his last breath, and she did all she could do.

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