How To Become A Respiratory Therapist - Questions Answered

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Respiratory Therapist

Would you like a challenging career as that of a respiratory therapist? It's no joke to handle patients with breathing and cardiovascular problems, some of whom are on the brink of death. And unless you have the technical expertise and knowledge, not all health care personnel are able to provide the necessary care and treatment for these cases.

Respiratory therapist job description

Working in coordination with a physician, it is your job to assess and evaluate a respiratory case and determine the treatment needed for the condition. This will mean running diagnostic tests, such as testing lung capacity, monitoring blood oxygen levels, and performing chest physiotherapy for patients with lung congestion and ventilating patients unable to breathe on their own.

Respiratory Therapist

You may be called upon to help with cardiopulmonary resuscitation. And it is your responsibility to educate patients and their families with asthma and other respiratory conditions on how to handle the situation in case of attacks.

The job is not for everyone. You work in emergency rooms, neo-natal/pediatric care, geriatrics ward and intensive care units. The patients are a broad range, from newly born infants to people in their old age. You are constantly faced with patients suffering from emphysema, pneumonia, chronic bronchitis and cystic fibrosis.

Your work involves mechanical ventilators, therapeutic gas administration equipment, aerosol generators and EKG machines, all very sensitive equipment. Without the proper respiratory therapy training, addressing these concerns can be disastrous.

So what does it take to learn the skills, become competent and gain the confidence to become a respiratory therapist? Here are some tips:

How to become a respiratory therapist?

Formal training is a must to work in respiratory therapy. For entry-level jobs, a two-year associate degree will qualify you to become a respiratory therapist technician.

The minimum requirement for admission to an RT school, usually a community, technical or vocational college, is a high school diploma or GED. No prior college credits or previous medical experience is required.

However, applicants must possess CPR training and certification. You can also increase your chances of acceptance by taking advance subjects in high school particularly biology, chemistry, mathematics and English.

The four-year bachelor degree gives you the edge in terms of employment opportunities. Students are better prepared because of the clinicals they must complete that usually involves 720 hours of hands-on training (lab and clinical).

Employers increasingly prefer candidates with at least one or two years experience because of the sensitive nature of the work.

Likewise, whether a technician or therapist, you must pass the certification exam administered by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). With more clinical experience, you can also take the test to become a registered respiratory therapist (RRT), the higher level of this health care professional.

What is the nature of the work?

Everyone in this line of work always says it is a very challenging job. The stress level is extremely high because dealing with respiratory problems can be a life and death situation.

You are on your feet most of the time. The respiratory therapist or technician moves from one section to another, usually to handle several cases simultaneously. They may be in the nature of an emergency or acute care. A 35- to 40-hour work week is normal, with three 12-hour shifts in most cases. Weekend, evening and holiday shifts is also common.

Other than the physical demands, the job also takes its toll emotionally. People suffering from respiratory distress are weak, in pain, or dying. And it is the respiratory therapist's job to help them breathe and keep them comfortable. Treatment can either be medication and therapy or a combination of both, so quick thinking and attention to detail is necessary to be effective at this job.

You must be a team player yet have the ability to work independently. During emergency situations, there are physicians and nurses also on hand to attend to the patient and you will need to follow instructions well, but still be able to think critically and offer your input on how best to address a situation.

Why are math and psychology important to an RT student?

Advance math subjects in high school, aside from biology and chemistry, will help you prepare as a respiratory therapist student. Administering medication is not simple for patients suffering from breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders.

They are not simply given pills to swallow but often injected with some drug intravenously or using equipment to arrest distress. There is also the more important gas or oxygen that is vital to the survival of a patient that must be computed accurately.

Without ample preparation in mathematics, how can you confidently yet expeditiously compute the dosages needed for each patient you are called to handle? And RTs sometimes groan because they have to attend to 10-12 patients per level. Math, too, trains the mind to think quickly but precisely.

Psychology, on the other hand, is an invaluable tool when you are on the job. To remain calm under stressful situations, you must understand what the patient (and their loved ones) is going through. Not only do you need the ability to empathize but also to comfort, assure and explain to all concerned what is being done and how the condition will be addressed.

Without an overview of human behavior, the work will be even more difficult. It will also help you control yourself during times when situations become unbearable, like when watching someone die even when you have been trying to do everything, using all the equipment available, and your skills, to prevent it from happening.

Help! I can't find clinical sites for hands-on training

One problem faced by students in respiratory therapy programs is finding clinical sites to accommodate them for training. Unfortunately, not all respiratory therapy schools are able to make arrangements for this part of the curriculum, even when this is the most critical part.

There are community colleges or universities affiliated with hospitals or health care facilities and usually have special arrangements to take in RT students. Typically, 16 to 24 hours per work are devoted to clinical training during the entire program.

For respiratory therapy programs, preceptorship or one-on-one training with a practitioner in a real work setting, is the mode of clinical trainings. Unfortunately, there are not enough qualified preceptors to take in the number of students thus making it difficult for the latter to complete this requirement.

Forums are good places to network with professionals and other students who can give insights and help in finding where to get the hands-on training you need. One good advice given by a respiratory therapist is to find clinical sites and preceptors first even before enrolling to make sure you will not cram once already in the program.

Certified or Registered respiratory therapist

If you want to work as a respiratory therapist, you need credentials attesting that you have the proper training, both theoretical and clinical, to qualify as a professional.

At entry level, employers look for certified candidates. This means you either completed a two-year associate degree or four-year bachelor program and passed the respiratory therapist certification exam administered by the National Board for Respiratory Care.

Your respiratory therapist education should have been through a school accredited either by the Committees on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Committee on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC).

The exam is 160 multiple-choice questions, 20 of which are pre-test items while the rest are scored. Clinical data, equipment and therapeutic procedures are the content areas to prepare for. You are given three hours to complete the test. Pass this and you will then be recognized as a Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT).

With a bachelor in respiratory therapy degree, you also qualify to sit for the exam that will grant you the Registered Respiratory Therapist title. But, you must also have passed the CRT exam previously before you can take the RRT test also administered by the NBRC.

As with most careers in the allied health care field, certified or any form of credential increases your chances of being hired, as well as receiving a higher salary. Respiratory therapists make, on average from $51,000 to $61,000 annually. The longer you have had experience, the better the chances of earning more.

If you are up to the task, in spite the challenges and issues faced in the industry, then get ready to become a respiratory therapist with the qualifications sought for by employers.

Comments page 1 of 1
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Posted 265 days ago
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Tim Myers
Posted 570 days ago
Mr. Almedia,

Our organization (which represents > 52,000 members) newsfeed pulled your article about the certrespiratorytherapist website. While we were excited to see the profession of respiratory therapy get some PR, we were greatly disappoint in the site and its numerous inaccuracies about the profession, its credentials, and its education.< br />
In fact, while it is not clear who runs the website from their page, one would gather it is a "technical venue" that is purposefully misleading its readership to their potential benefit. It is a shame that more research and investigation was not conducted from a more credible source....the American Association for Respiratory Care.....the professional organization for respiratory therapist. While I website does need some major refinement, the information is accurate and reliable.

Thanks for your time and attention.


Timothy R. Myers MBA, RRT-NPS, FAARC
Associate Executive Director, Brands Management

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