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What is a Respiratory Therapist

Most people take breathing for granted. It’s second nature, an involuntary reflex. But for the thousands of Americans who suffer from breathing problems, each breath is a major accomplishment. Those people include patients with chronic lung problems, such as asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema, but they also include heart attack and accident victims; premature infants; and people with cystic fibrosis, lung cancer, or AIDS.

In each case, the person will most likely receive treatment from a respiratory therapist (RT) under the direction of a physician. Respiratory therapists work to evaluate, treat, and care for patients with breathing disorders.

The Role of The Respiratory Therapist

There are about 100,000 respiratory therapists in the United States. They work with patients of all ages and in many different care settings. Respiratory therapists are members of the health care team that provide respiratory care for patients with heart and lung disorders.

Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals where they perform intensive care, critical care, and neonatal procedures. They are also typically a vital part of the hospital’s lifesaving response team that handles patient emergencies. Of the more than 7,000 hospitals in this country, about 5,700 have separate respiratory care departments.

An increasing number of respiratory therapists are now working in skilled nursing facilities, physicians’ offices, home health agencies, specialized care hospitals, medical equipment supply companies, and patients’ homes.

Respiratory therapists perform procedures that are both diagnostic and therapeutic. Some of these activities include:


  • Obtaining and analyzing sputum and breath specimens. They also take blood specimens and analyze them to determine levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other gases.
  • Interpreting the data obtained from these specimens.
  • Measuring the capacity of a patient’s lungs to determine if there is impaired function.
  • Performing stress tests and other studies of the cardiopulmonary system.
  • Studying disorders of people with disruptive sleep patterns.


  • Operating and maintaining various types of highly sophisticated equipment to administer oxygen or to assist with breathing.
  • Employing mechanical ventilation for treating patients who cannot breathe adequately on their own.
  • Monitoring and managing therapy that will help a patient recover lung function.
  • Administering medications in aerosol form to help alleviate breathing problems and to help prevent respiratory infections.
  • Monitoring equipment and patient responses to therapy.
  • Conducting rehabilitation activities, such as low-impact aerobic exercise classes, to help patients who suffer from chronic lung problems.
  • Maintaining a patient’s artificial airway, one that may be in place to help the patient who can’t breathe through normal means.
  • Conducting smoking cessation programs for both hospital patients and others in the community who want to kick the tobacco habit.

Education and Training

  • There are two levels of respiratory therapist: the certified respiratory therapist and the registered respiratory therapist.
  • Respiratory therapists are required to complete either a two-year associate’s degree or a four-year baccalaureate degree. Upon graduation they are eligible to take a national voluntary examination that, upon passing, leads to the credential Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT).
  • Subsequently they may take two more examinations that leads to the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) credential.
  • More than 400 community colleges and universities nationwide offer respiratory care programs.
  • All aspiring respiratory therapists must take courses in physics, mathematics, microbiology, anatomy and physiology, chemistry, and biology.
  • To help you learn more about accredited respiratory care educational programs, we have provided a list of such programs. Each of the program listings includes the name of the program director and address of the educational program.
  • Inquiries regarding information about a specific educational program should be made directly to program officials.

The Professional Association

A number of respiratory therapists are members of their national organization, the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC). The AARC has more than 35,000 members in 50 state chapters and three international ones.

The Association is primarily responsible for developing educational opportunities for its members and ensuring that the standards of care and practice in the profession are developed and maintained. One ongoing project of the Association is to develop and upgrade written clinical practice guidelines, or standards, for the respiratory care profession as well as for use by government agencies and other health groups. In addition, the AARC develops materials that members can use in their community health promotion and disease prevention activities.

The AARC monitors both federal and state legislative and regulatory activity that might affect the health and health care of this nation, such as issues related to Medicare, smoking, or hiring practices of health care workers.

The Outlook

The need for respiratory care professionals is expected to grow in the coming years due to the large increase in the elderly population; the impact of environmental problems that have already contributed to the yearly rise in number of reported asthma cases; and technological advances in the treatment of heart attack, cancer, and accident victims, as well as premature babies.

If you would like to receive additional information about this dynamic medical profession and its professional Association, please contact:

American Association for Respiratory Care
9425 N. MacArthur Blvd. Suite 100
Irving, TX 75063-4706
Phone: (972) 243-2272
Fax: (972) 484-2720
E-mail: info@aarc.org