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A respiratory therapist is an indispensable part of the health care team, both in hospital and in home care settings. His or her primary goal is to help a patient improve his ability to breathe comfortably, through a variety of medications, extensive equipment and through training or education of patients. There are diverse fields into which the respiratory therapist can enter, with most being employed by hospitals for in-hospital care. Many other therapists of this type may work in home care settings to help set up, maintain, and instruct people on using needed equipment or medications.
There are actually two types of jobs that use this title, and at minimum, a therapist of this type will have an associate degree, at least two years of college training in their field, prior to being employable. After completing an associate degree, the person takes an examination to become a certified respiratory therapist (CRT). This exam may also be taken if the therapist completes four years of college. The next level up in this field is further education, and two more examinations, usually taken after receiving a four-year degree.
When these exams are passed, the CRT becomes a registered respiratory therapist (RRT). RRTs may be preferred as employees in hospital settings since they have more proven skill and knowledge in their field. Additionally, they have higher earning potential than do CRTs.
As healthcare workers, CRTs and RRTs work as both diagnosticians and practitioners. When a person exhibits breathing difficulties, the therapist, usually in concert or under the supervision of a physician, first must diagnose the problem. He or she may obtain samples of sputum, analyze oxygen levels in blood work, evaluate X-rays, and perform a variety of tests to understand the degree of pulmonary impairment. Some work in sleep study clinics to observe and diagnose sleep apnea.
Once a problem is identified, the respiratory professional sets to work to solve the issue through a variety of interventions. These may include respiratory support, such as administering oxygen, asthma medications or recommending intubation (breathing tubes) for patients who cannot breathe on their own. As a patient improves, CRTS and RRTS continue to analyze the effectiveness of intervention strategies and may make changes or help to decide when patients can have breathing tubes removed. They also may instruct patients in simple breathing exercises, encourage people to cease smoking, and help patients make the transition from hospital care to home care when needed.
Some CRTS and RRTs work primarily with medical supply companies to help patients set up and learn to use equipment like ventilators, oxygen, and sleep apnea machines in the home setting. They train both patients and family members as needed on the use of this equipment and are often available to answer questions or to help troubleshoot problems that may occur with equipment use. They may be responsible for writing reports on equipment supplied to patients and order of additional needed equipment for medical supply companies.
Respiratory therapy is a growing field, with significant demand for trained professionals. People considering this career should study the basic sciences in high school, particularly chemistry, biology and anatomy, and should learn excellent people skills. Working and communicating with patients is an expected part of the job, and people adept at clear communication and who excel at listening carefully to patients will greatly enhance their performance in this field.