What’s a Respiratory Therapist?

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

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 in-demand field! 

What is Respiratory Therapy?

Respiratory therapy is the treatment of breathing difficulty that stems from pulmonary or cardiovascular conditions. The most common conditions include asthma, bronchitis, COPD, pneumonia, chest trauma, underdeveloped lungs, and lung cancer. However, respiratory therapists also provide treatment in emergency medical situations—like heart attack or lung failure.  

These allied health professionals have one-on-one sessions with patients and are heavily involved in treatment planning. But, because respiratory therapists handle such a myriad of illnesses and complications, they also typically operate on a team of physicians.  

Respiratory therapists can work within multiple settings including hospitals, emergency rooms and clinics, private practices, and long-term care facilities. And many therapists will also work with patients who need outpatient or home health treatment plans.  

Becoming a Respiratory Therapist 

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

This specialty also requires providers to be extremely adaptable, as respiratory therapists are tasked with treating: 

  • Acute and chronic illnesses 
  • Patients as young as premature infants and elderly patients 
  • Emergency medical situations and long-term conditions 

So when it comes to breathing complications, they have to be prepared for it all. To accomplish this, respiratory therapists obtain multiple licenses and/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 

For this role it’s required to have at least an associate degree in a related field and preferably a bachelor’s 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 respiratory therapy education program—associate, bachelor’s, or master’s level—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 

Once the CRT credential has been earned, 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

This list encompasses the key skills that are needed as a respiratory therapist, as well as the ones that are most likely to get you noticed by hiring managers. 

  • Conducting, performing, and analyzing lung capacity and capability tests 
  • Evaluating and diagnosing lung or breathing disorders 
  • Experience creating successful treatment plans for inpatient and outpatient care 
  • Practice with specialized equipment, and the ability to make equipment recommendations for outpatient treatment 
  • Knowledge of software used for patient data and progress tracking 
  • Impeccable communication skills—with patients and practitioners from other specialties 
  • Ability to successfully educate patients or patient guardians on their condition, so they understand importance and reasons for treatment plan details or related lifestyle changes 
  • Adaptability  

Common Interview Questions 

Interviews are an opportunity to showcase skills, areas of experience, attention to detail, and overall qualities 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.  

Salary and Job Outlook  

As we mentioned earlier, the respiratory therapy field is expected to grow at a rate that is faster than most occupations. 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. 

The salary range for respiratory therapists falls between $67,205 and $80,406, with the median being $73,961. Respiratory therapists can raise their earning potential by becoming RRT certified.  

A Career in Respiratory Therapy   

As a respiratory therapist, you have the chance to treat a range of patients—from infants to the elderly—as well as regularly team up with providers outside of your specialty. It’s a career that is dynamic, rewarding, impactful, and just so happens to be in-demand. 

So, if you’re passionate about respiratory treatment and helping people live healthier, fuller lives, a career in respiratory therapy may be the right path for you! And if you’re already in the field but looking for a new opportunity—check out our job board to get started.