What’s a Respiratory Therapist?

blog cover with icons of lungs and stethoscope and text that says what's a respiratory therapist

Updated 12/1/2023


The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects job openings for respiratory therapists to grow 14% through 2031, which is faster than the average for all occupations. Strong career growth aside, it’s a career where you can help patients live healthier, fuller lives by managing or overcoming breathing complications.  

Read on for a detailed look at respiratory therapy and everything you need to know about a career in this field! 

What is Respiratory Therapy?

Respiratory therapy is the evaluation and care of patients suffering from various breathing issues. The most common conditions include asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, and lung cancer. These professionals have one-on-one sessions with patients and are heavily involved in treatment planning, as well. But, because respiratory therapists handle various illnesses and complications, they also typically operate on a team of physicians.  

You will typically find these therapists working in various settings ranging from hospitals to clinics. But if a patient can’t make it in? There’s no need to worry they’ve got it covered. Respiratory therapists have the unique advantage of being able to support patients in their homes or virtually through telehealth, thanks to the evolution of healthcare technology.   

This places an emphasis on respiratory therapists being flexible in their ability to conduct their job duties. Let’s talk more about those. 

Responsibilities of a Respiratory Therapist

Respiratory therapists do far more than manage ventilators and track breathing patterns. On an average day, they are health investigators by:  

  • Assessing or educating new and existing patients (of all ages) 
  • Diagnosing and administering treatment for lung or breathing disorders 
  • Drawing and analyzing patient blood samples 
  • Routinely monitoring patient progress to modify treatment plans as needed 

These responsibilities can be quite dynamic and make for a productive day full of connecting with others and conflict resolution.  

Related: 7 Vital Allied Healthcare Professionals and What They Do

Becoming a Respiratory Therapist 

The road to becoming a respiratory therapist requires skill development, licensure, and building extensive knowledge on pulmonary and cardiovascular conditions and treatment options.  

This specialty also requires providers to be extremely adaptable, as respiratory therapists are health investigators by:  

  • Assessing or educating new and existing patients (of all ages) 
  • Diagnosing and administering treatment for lung or breathing disorders 
  • Drawing and analyzing patient blood samples 
  • Routinely monitoring patient progress to modify treatment plans as needed 

So when it comes to breathing complications, they have to be ready for anything. To accomplish this, respiratory therapists obtain multiple licenses or credentials, while also developing an extensive list of hard and soft skills 

Below we’ve compiled a checklist of skills and credentials for success in this field.   

Degrees and Credentials 

Respiratory therapists typically pursue a two-year associate degree or a four-year bachelor’s degree in respiratory care, nursing, or an adjacent degree. But the most important step is to earn the right credentials. There are two credential options for becoming a respiratory therapist: 

  • CRT: Certified Respiratory Therapist 
  • RRT: Registered Respiratory Therapist 

Let’s breakdown how you can earn these credentials: 

CRT: Certified Respiratory Therapist 

Upon graduating from an accredited program, you are eligible to take the Therapist Multiple-Choice (TMC) Exam. This exam gives two scoring options: if a candidate is in the low range, then they earn the CRT credential. If they are in the upper range, then they will earn the CRT credential and be eligible for the RRT credential. 

RRT: Registered Respiratory Therapist 

After earning the CRT credential, the candidate must take the Clinical Simulation Exam (CSE). If they pass the CSE in addition to the previously taken TMC Exam, then they will be awarded the Registered Respiratory Therapist credential. The RRT is nationally recognized as the “standard of excellence” for respiratory care professionals. 

In-Demand Skills for Respiratory Therapist

We’ve provided a glimpse into their day, but how can a respiratory therapist really excel at their job? The right balance of technical and interpersonal skills is key. The ideal candidates for this role could have a combination of the following skills:

  • Communication: Effective communication helps to work collaboratively with physicians and practitioners from other specialties, as well as to ensure that patients receive the best possible care.
  • Critical thinking: Respiratory therapists identify cause-and-effect relationships for patients’ symptoms on a daily basis, so it’s essential to prepare to troubleshoot issues at any given moment.
  • Technological proficiency: The therapist should be comfortable with aspects of the role that involve technical maneuvering such as the administration of oxygen or medication to a patient’s lungs and managing mechanical ventilators. As we’ve mentioned, this sort of therapy can be administered remotely, so good respiratory therapists need to be proficient with varying types of technology.
  • Flexibility: The ability to adapt to changing environments and diverse patient populations is the key to respiratory therapists to thriving in their career.

Additional skills that may contribute to succeeding as a respiratory therapist are empathy, compassion, and active listening. 

Common Interview Questions 

Interviews are an opportunity to showcase skills and areas of experience that make you a successful respiratory therapist. Whether you’re relatively new or a seasoned expert, these are questions you may encounter on your next job search:  

  • What respiratory equipment are you most familiar with? 
  • How would you work with other practitioners to create effective treatment plans? 
  • Are you experienced with outpatient or home health treatment plans? 
  • How do you stay up to date on advancements in the respiratory field? 
  • Which software have you used in the past for patient data and record updating? How often do you update patient records? 
  • How would you begin a standard evaluation?  
  • Can you provide an example of an emergency medical situation you handled? 

Practicing these common interview questions can help you answer them effectively during the real thing.  

Pay and Job Outlook  

The BLS predicts around 9,400 respiratory therapist openings per year, citing retiring workers as a main driving factor. Demand for this role has never been higher, indicating excellent job security and growth potential. According to Indeed, these professionals may earn around $60,000 annually starting out but can eventually make upwards of $130,000 annually based on experience, location, and workplace. 

A Career in Respiratory Therapy   

We are no strangers to the healthcare industry (we’ve been staffing for 20+ years, after all), so we understand that helping patients maintain their health and dignity is a rewarding feeling that can go far beyond job security.  

If you’re ready to start your career as a respiratory therapist—or you’re looking for a new role in the field—check out our job board for openings. And if you happen to be a hiring manager looking to expand your staff, connect with our team of experts to get started on sourcing and hiring the best fit for the job.