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Respiratory Therapist

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(6.8 out of 10)

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Unemployment Rate

3.6 percent

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“We like to call ourselves the Rodney Dangerfield of health care,” says Timothy Myers, associate executive director of the American Association for Respiratory Care. “Not because we don’t get respect, but because people don’t know about respiratory therapists. We’re often confused with nurses. And people often look down on our work needing only an associate’s level degree for entry, but it’s a challenging profession that can actually be rewarding.”

Given the amount of growth expected in this occupation – 22,700 new positions by the decade’s end – now seems like a good time to end the confusion about what these health care workers actually do.

Respiratory therapists, or RTs, provide care for patients with heart and lung problems. They often treat people who have asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema, cystic fibrosis and sleep apnea, but also those experiencing a heart attack or suffering a stroke. They perform diagnostic tests for lung capacity, administer breathing treatments, record a patient’s progress and consult with physicians and surgeons on continuing care. And Myers is right – respiratory therapy is a profession that only requires an associate’s degree to enter. But once you’re in, don’t expect to coast by on only two-years’ worth of training. Even after completing their educational requirements, RTs work to stay steps ahead of evolving health care practices and treat the growing number of Americans struggling with heart and lung problems.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports there are more than 15 million adults in the United States living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the name for conditions that limit air flow and cause breathing trouble. By 2020, all baby boomers will be 55 or older and will be more susceptible to medical conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia. Given future health care needs, this field looks promising for job prospects. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates employment growth of about 19 percent between 2012 and 2022, and 22,700 positions will need to be filled.


In 2012, respiratory therapists made a median salary of $55,870. The BLS reports that the highest-paid made more than $75,430, and the lowest-paid earned less than $40,980. Although hospitals are the top employers, they don’t pay the best: Colleges, universities and professional schools actually pay therapists in the upper 60s. If you really want the best compensation, job hunt in California. The top-paying metropolitan areas are all in the Golden State.

Salary Range

75th Percentile $66,350
Median $55,870
25th Percentile $47,520


At a minimum, respiratory therapists need an associate degree, but the field’s elite also have a bachelor’s degree. Myers says there are about 380 to 390 associate programs throughout the country and up to 55 bachelor’s degree programs. Anticipate coursework in anatomy, chemistry, microbiology, pharmacology and mathematics. These programs also offer training on performing diagnostic tests and patient assessment.

The next step in training is obtaining a license and certification. There are two certification levels that most RTs seek: Certified Respiratory Therapist (known as CRT), which indicates your mastery of essential knowledge, skills and abilities as an entry-level therapist, and the Registered Respiratory Therapist certification, or RRT. An RRT credential signifies a more advanced level of knowledge. “In today’s market, people are looking for advanced practice clinicians, and therefore, there’s a movement for employers to really push for the RRT credential,” Myers says. “We’ve basically told our grads when coming in the door that they had to achieve their RRT within a year of employment.”

Specialists have other certifications to consider, including the Neonatal/Pediatric Respiratory Care Specialist credential, or the Sleep Disorders Testing and Therapeutic Intervention Respiratory Care Specialist credential.

Specialists have other certifications to consider, including the Neonatal/Pediatric Respiratory Care Specialist credential, or the Sleep Disorders Testing and Therapeutic Intervention Respiratory Care Specialist credential. For more information on state licensure and examinations, visit the National Board for Respiratory Care's website.

Reviews & Advice

Practice your people skills and problem-solving abilities so you can better relate to and examine patients, plus consult with doctors and other health care personnel on appropriate treatment. Understanding how to operate medical equipment is an asset, in addition to computer skills, since medical records are increasingly digitized.

Having a head for evidence-based medicine will also help you go far. “Evidence-based medicine is about taking the science out of research and continuous quality improvement initiatives, and then transferring it into best clinical practice,” Myers says. “There’s a big focus in the U.S. on quality and safety and preventing infections that are hospital-acquired. We’re looking for people to take best practice and take science and convert that into best-practice standards.”

Job Satisfaction

Upward Mobility poor Below Average
Stress Level poor Above Average
Flexibility poor Below Average
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Last updated by Stephanie Steinberg.

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