A respiratory therapist (RT) is a healthcare professional who specializes in caring for individuals with lung and heart diseases. They work as part of a team along with doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to provide care. You can recognize an RT by their role or title on their identification badge or by the different color of “scrubs” they usually wear to differentiate themselves from other groups of healthcare professionals in a facility.
Respiratory therapists perform their duties (see Table below) on the order of a physician, physician assistant (PA), or advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). Respiratory therapists may practice in a variety of settings such as doctor’s offices, clinics, or sleep labs but the majority of RTs work in hospitals. According to the National Board for Respiratory Care, there are approximately 200,000 respiratory therapists currently practicing in the United States.
Table. Common Responsibilities of a Respiratory Therapist Working in a Hospital
To become a respiratory therapist, a person may either earn an associate’s degree (2 years) or a bachelor’s degree (4 years) from an accredited college. The course work includes many science classes such as biology, physiology, and anatomy. Graduates may first become certified respiratory therapists (CRT) by taking a written exam and then a registered respiratory therapist (RRT) by taking an additional practical exam that requires them to demonstrate skills in a simulated patient.
Beyond attaining their CRT or RRT status, respiratory therapists may choose to specialize in caring for specific populations such as adult critical care patients, infants and children, or sleep disorder testing. These specialized credentials usually require the RT to work for a time before taking an additional exam in the specialty area. Respiratory therapists who specialize in working with infants and children are called neonatal/pediatric specialists (NPS).
A RRT-NPS has extensive knowledge of lung mechanics, respiratory equipment, medical gases such as helium or oxygen, and medications used to treat lung diseases in infants and children. You are likely to encounter a respiratory therapist if your child has a disease of the lungs such as asthma, bronchopulmonary dysplasia, or cystic fibrosis. They are also integral in caring for premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
Babies born prematurely can require long stays in the NICU. Their lungs and central nervous systems are underdeveloped putting them at risk for diseases such as respiratory distress syndrome, bronchopulmonary disorder, or apnea. These babies often need to be placed on a ventilator and oxygen to assist their breathing. They may also be given surfactant, a medicine instilled into their lungs, or require other inhaled medicines. A respiratory therapist would be closely involved in managing these therapies and monitoring your infant’s response.
As with most healthcare professions, respiratory therapy is regulated by the state in which the person works and a license is necessary in order to work. Most states require an individual to earn the CRT or RRT designation in order to apply for a license. Individual state requirements and a directory of individuals who are licensed as respiratory therapists can usually be located on a state’s government website. The next time you encounter an RT say hello and ask them any questions you have about your or your child’s respiratory disease or treatment.