Career Paths for Respiratory Therapists

Most people assume that becoming a respiratory therapist (RT) will require them to work in a hospital setting, and many indeed do. About 75% of RTs work in a hospital, according to the Mayo Foundation for Medical and Educational Research.

However, there are numerous alternative careers for respiratory therapists, and many RRT careers occur outside of a hospital setting. Respiratory therapists work in clinics, schools, telehealth, sleep labs, nursing homes, and for durable medical equipment companies, among other places. 

Various Respiratory Therapist Career Paths:

Your options are plentiful once you obtain your RRT degree and become a respiratory therapist. Look at the following options to help you decide on your respiratory therapist career path. 

Adult Critical Care Specialist

One role of respiratory therapists in a hospital setting is working in adult critical care units. Although some facilities continue to hire certified respiratory therapists (CRTs), many facilities now require registered respiratory therapists (RRTs) to work with critically ill patients. 

Obtaining an Adult Critical Care Specialty (ACCS) credential lets you show off your knowledge to potential employers, allowing them, your patients, and your coworkers to know you have the skills required to work in adult intensive care units. Respiratory therapists must obtain their RRT credentials before taking the ACCS exam. 

Neonatal and Pediatric Respiratory Care Specialist 

Neonatal and pediatric RTs work with premature babies, newborns, infants, toddlers, and children. Both CRTs and RRTs work as neonatal and pediatric RTs, although some hospitals may require the RRT credential. All RTs can earn the Neonatal-Pediatric Specialist (NPS) credential. RTs with this specialty can work in hospitals with neonatal and pediatric units or children’s hospitals. 

Pulmonary Function Technologist

A pulmonary function technologist administers pulmonary function tests (PFTs) to patients with lung diseases like COPD or other medical conditions. Healthcare providers use PFTs to diagnose lung diseases and monitor lung function over time.

RRTs and CRTs can obtain pulmonary function technologist credentials, CPFT (certified), and RPFT (registered). Pulmonary function technologists work in hospitals, pulmonary clinics, and doctor’s offices. 

Sleep Lab Specialist

With sleep apnea cases on the rise, sleep lab specialists are in high demand. Sleep specialists work overnight in a sleep lab, performing polysomnography tests, also known as sleep studies. 

RRTs and CRTs can obtain a Sleep Disorder Specialist (SDS) or Registered Polysomnographic Technologist (RPSGT) credential. 

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation uses education and exercise to help people with chronic lung conditions regain strength and independence and reduce their symptoms. 

RTs teach patients how to improve their breathing and monitor their heart rate, pulse oximetry, and blood pressure before, during, and after exercise, ensuring their patients gain the benefits of exercise without pushing too hard. Pulmonary rehabilitation RTs also help patients learn how to manage their heart or lung disease even after the program ends. 

Home Care Respiratory Therapist

Many people use home oxygen concentrators, CPAP machines, suction machines, nebulizers, ventilators, and apnea monitors. Respiratory therapists deliver this equipment, help with the set-up, and educate the patient on how to use their device. RTs also perform follow-up visits to the patient’s home.

Research Career Opportunities in Respiratory Therapy

Becoming involved in research provides another exciting respiratory therapist career path. Research is vital to providing the best possible patient care and ensuring that the patient receives the most effective treatment. 

Research involves ongoing communication with physicians and the research team. Respiratory therapists can assist with cardiopulmonary-related research, like how different medications affect the respiratory system or how technology can impact the diagnosis and treatment of respiratory disease. 

Other Career Paths for Respiratory Therapists

With the growing demand for respiratory therapists, your possibilities are plentiful. Here are a few more respiratory therapist career path options to consider.

  • Management: Supervise your department’s respiratory therapists, review the department’s operations, hire qualified staff, and perform other management duties.
  • Neonatal Pediatric Transport (NPT): Assess, monitor, and evaluate neonatal and pediatric patients while transporting them on an ambulance or helicopter.
  • Asthma Educator-Certified (AE-C): Assist patients with managing their asthma care and provide education.
  • Hyperbaric Medicine: Ensure patient care while safely administering hyperbaric oxygen to patients receiving hyperbaric therapy for infections, wounds, or other medical conditions.
  • Device Educator or Sales Representative: Educate healthcare staff, physicians, or patients about a specific device, such as a ventilator, LifeVest, CPAP machine, or other medical devices. RTs can also choose to work in sales of these devices. 
  • Telehealth: Telehealth is growing, and so is the need for RTs to provide virtual services. Some telehealth companies hire RTs to virtually assess patients, work with physicians to develop care plans and perform patient follow-up visits.
  • Teaching: Some respiratory therapists choose to teach upcoming RTs. RT instructors can teach in classrooms or clinical care settings. 

Necessary Education and Training for Respiratory Therapists

To become a respiratory therapist, you’ll need to complete an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy. However, some facilities may now require that you obtain a bachelor’s degree. 

After completing your degree, you’ll take the Therapist Multiple Choice (TMC) exam provided by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). Passing the exam gives you the CRT credential, and if your score is high enough, you qualify to take the Clinical Simulation Exam (CSE). You earn your RRT credential after passing the CSE. 

Once you become a credentialed respiratory therapist, you must complete enough continuing education credits to keep your credentials active.

Some respiratory therapists opt for higher education, achieving a bachelor’s or master’s of science in respiratory therapy. Although you won’t need a higher education degree to find success in your respiratory career, it could earn you a higher salary, according to the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC). 

In-Demand Careers in Respiratory Therapy

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for respiratory therapists is expected to grow much faster than the average for all other careers between now and 2031. 

RTs are in high demand for numerous reasons.

  • Cases of obstructive sleep apnea and sleep-disordered breathing are on the rise.
  • More people are vaping instead of smoking.
  • Lung infections are increasing.
  • More people want to prevent disease.
  • Healthcare workers are experiencing burnout.

Once you become a respiratory therapist, your possibilities are endless. Whether you work in a hospital, clinic, or sleep lab or choose a career in homecare or research, you’re sure to find a rewarding career path that suits you.

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