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Certified Respiratory Therapist Career Guide

What is a certified respiratory therapist?

A certified respiratory therapist (CRT) is a specialized healthcare professional whose primary focus is the assessment and treatment of patients with both chronic and acute dysfunction of the cardiopulmonary system. This includes conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia, and other breathing disorders. Their skills are pivotal in the healthcare landscape, serving a diverse range of patients from premature infants with undeveloped lungs to elderly patients with diseased lungs.

A CRT’s role is of immense value within a medical team. They are equipped with the knowledge and skills to administer respiratory care based on patient assessments, implement protocols, utilize evidence-based clinical practice guidelines, and provide patient and family-centered care. Their expertise contributes to enhancing the patients’ overall health outcomes and improving quality of life.

Duties and responsibilities

The primary responsibility of a CRT is to provide therapeutic treatments and life support to patients with breathing disorders. They perform diagnostic tests such as measuring lung capacity and monitoring the patient’s blood oxygen levels.

They are also involved in creating a treatment plan for patients, which may include aerosol medications, chest physiotherapy, mechanical ventilation, and more. Additionally, they’re responsible for closely monitoring and managing ventilators and artificial airway devices for patients who can’t breathe normally on their own.

These professionals provide emergency care, such as performing resuscitation and maintaining breathing in cardiac arrest situations.

Work environment

CRTs predominantly work in hospital settings, including intensive care units (ICUs), neonatal ICUs, emergency rooms, and pulmonary diagnostic laboratories. However, they can also be found in long-term care facilities, rehabilitation centers, and home healthcare settings.

The work environment can be high-pressure and fast-paced, particularly when dealing with life-threatening situations. Due to the nature of their work, they’re exposed to various infectious diseases and must adhere to strict safety protocols to ensure their protection. Good physical stamina is also needed as they often need to stand for extended periods and move patients.

Typical work hours

Generally, CRTs work full-time. In hospitals and other 24-hour care facilities, they may work in shifts that cover all hours of the day and night, including weekends and holidays. These professionals need to be available on-call for emergencies as well. In other healthcare settings with more regular hours, they may work during the day, five days a week. However, overtime might be necessary in response to an increase in patient load or staff shortages.

How to become a certified respiratory therapist

Becoming a certified respiratory therapist requires a combination of specialized education, hands-on clinical experience, and passing a national certification exam. Below are the steps you need to follow to qualify as a CRT.

Step 1: Earn an associate’s degree

Begin by pursuing an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy from a program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC). This program will provide you with the foundational knowledge and technical skills required in this field, including coursework in human anatomy, physiology, chemistry, and respiratory care practices.

While earning your degree, consider taking online courses to learn even more about a particular subject. Here are some great options for aspiring CRTs:

  • To gain an in-depth understanding of medical terminology, consider taking this Udemy course. Using narrated presentations, pictures, and tables, the course will introduce you to the meaning of various roots, terms, and combining forms.
  • Learn more about immunology with the Fundamentals of Immunology Specialization course on Coursera. This course will provide a fundamental understanding of immunology and the ability to appreciate and analyze new developments in immunological therapies designed for the treatment of disease.

Step 2: Complete clinical experience

As part of your degree program, you will complete supervised clinical rotations. This practical experience allows you to apply classroom knowledge to real-world scenarios, providing care to patients under the supervision of experienced healthcare professionals.

Step 3: Obtain licensure

Most states require respiratory therapists to be licensed. This typically involves meeting the educational requirements, completing a certain amount of clinical experience, and passing a state licensing exam. Make sure to check the specific licensure requirements in your state.

Step 4: Become a certified respiratory therapist

After earning your degree and obtaining licensure, you can sit for the CRT exam administered by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). This certification demonstrates your knowledge and skills in respiratory care and is a requirement for employment in many healthcare settings.

Step 5: Pursue additional certification (optional)

You may wish to pursue advanced certification, such as becoming a registered respiratory therapist (RRT). While this is not required to practice as a respiratory therapist, it can enhance your career prospects and demonstrate your commitment to excellence in the field.

Step 6: Apply for jobs

With the necessary education, clinical experience, certification, and licensure, you can apply for CRT positions. Your resume and cover letter should highlight your relevant skills, experiences, and passion for patient care in respiratory therapy. Ongoing professional development and staying current with advancements in the field will be key to your continued success.

How much do certified respiratory therapists make?

The salary for CRTs can vary depending on factors such as geographic location, level of education, years of experience, industry, and type of healthcare facility.

Highest paying industries

  • Outpatient Care Centers: $83,000
  • Specialty Hospitals: $80,000
  • General Medical and Surgical Hospitals: $75,000
  • Offices of Physicians: $74,000
  • Skilled Nursing Facilities: $72,000

Highest paying states

  • California: $91,000
  • Massachusetts: $80,150
  • New York: $80,000
  • Nevada: $78,000
  • Washington: $77,000

Browse certified respiratory therapist salary data by market

Types of certified respiratory therapists

In this section, we will explore the different types of CRTs and shed light on their unique responsibilities and areas of focus.

Pediatric respiratory therapist

Pediatric respiratory therapists specialize in treating infants, children, and adolescents with respiratory disorders. They are skilled in handling the unique respiratory issues of this age group, from premature infants with underdeveloped lungs to children with asthma.

Neonatal respiratory therapist

Neonatal respiratory therapists focus on the care of newborns, particularly those with respiratory distress or born prematurely. These therapists are experts in neonatal intensive care units, working closely with doctors and nurses to ensure the respiratory health of fragile newborns.

Geriatric respiratory therapist

Geriatric respiratory therapists provide care for elderly patients who often face a range of respiratory challenges associated with aging, including COPD and pneumonia. These professionals are adept at addressing the unique respiratory needs of this population and often work in long-term care facilities, hospitals, or home healthcare settings.

Pulmonary rehabilitation therapist

Pulmonary rehabilitation therapists work with patients recovering from lung disease or lung surgery. They design and implement rehabilitation plans that help patients improve their lung function, manage their symptoms, and enhance their quality of life. This often involves teaching breathing exercises, promoting physical exercise, and providing education about their condition.

Sleep disorder therapist

Sleep disorder therapists, often known as sleep technicians, specialize in diagnosing and treating sleep-related breathing disorders, such as sleep apnea. They conduct sleep studies, interpret results, and assist in the management of treatment strategies, often working in sleep centers or clinics.

Critical care respiratory therapist

Critical care respiratory therapists work in high-pressure environments like ICUs and emergency departments. They manage ventilators and other life-supporting devices for patients who have severe respiratory issues due to trauma, severe illness, or major surgery.

Top skills for certified respiratory therapists

CRTs must possess a comprehensive understanding of respiratory care techniques. These healthcare professionals are responsible for assisting patients with a wide range of breathing issues, from chronic diseases like asthma or COPD to emergency care for heart attacks or drowning. They need to have an expert-level knowledge of mechanical ventilation, administering aerosolized drugs, operating and maintaining respiratory equipment, and more. This technical expertise forms the backbone of their practice, enabling them to provide effective patient care.

Effective communication is vital as they interact with a variety of individuals, including patients, families, and a diverse team of healthcare professionals. Conveying complex medical information clearly to patients, reassuring them during treatment, and collaborating efficiently with other healthcare providers are crucial. It’s a balancing act of providing empathetic support and relaying vital clinical information in high-stakes situations.

The job often requires significant physical work, including standing for long periods and handling heavy equipment. These therapists also need to be adept with their hands to connect patients to ventilators or administer treatments. Therefore, good dexterity and physical stamina are important skills for enduring the demands of the role.

Problem-solving abilities are essential as they must quickly assess patients’ conditions and decide on the most appropriate treatment, often under pressure. This involves evaluating medical data, understanding the implications, and applying their knowledge to develop an effective treatment plan. This skill can often make the difference in critical scenarios.

A less tangible but equally important skill is compassion. Working with patients who are struggling to breathe can be emotionally challenging. CRTs must demonstrate empathy, understanding, and emotional support, helping patients to feel comfortable and secure during difficult times. Balancing the technical aspects of the role with the human element is vital for providing holistic care.

Certified respiratory therapist career path

The career path for a certified respiratory therapist typically begins with an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy or a related field, followed by completion of a state-approved respiratory therapy program and certification through the NBRC. Aspiring CRTs can gain hands-on experience in assessing patients’ respiratory conditions, administering oxygen therapy, and providing mechanical ventilation by starting as entry-level respiratory therapists or respiratory therapy technicians.

As they gain experience and demonstrate strong performance, they may advance to more senior roles, such as senior respiratory therapist or clinical coordinator, where they take on more complex tasks and responsibilities in supervising and training junior respiratory therapists, developing and implementing care plans, and collaborating with other healthcare professionals.

With a solid track record of success and experience, these professionals may progress into leadership roles, such as director of respiratory care, manager of pulmonary services, or vice president of patient care, where they oversee the entire respiratory care function of an organization, manage respiratory care staff, and ensure the overall alignment and effectiveness of respiratory care operations.

Additionally, some may specialize in specific areas, such as neonatal or pediatric respiratory care, sleep medicine, or pulmonary rehabilitation, or transition into related fields, such as healthcare administration, education, or medical sales.

As the population ages, respiratory care is becoming a greater part of healthcare than in other areas. Diseases such as emphysema and COPD are heavily age-related. With this shift, the ratio of workers to patients is declining. Respiratory therapy will have to be streamlined, networked, and automated to provide the same level of care as previously. 

Healthcare costs continue to skyrocket, which affects respiratory therapy as it does all other areas of healthcare. Cost reduction will play a role in the future of respiratory therapy. Implementing measures such as increasing preventive strategies can help reduce costs. 

As new technologies arise, automation will help productivity and cut costs. The introduction of more complex and subtle instruments will allow therapists to measure patients’ respiratory health more accurately, improving quality despite reduced human interaction. CRTs must stay informed about the latest trends in respiratory therapy technology and be adaptable to new methods and tools to ensure precision and effectiveness in their work. 

Employment projections for certified respiratory therapists

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for respiratory therapists, which includes CRTs, is projected to grow by 14% through 2031. This growth is much faster than the average for all occupations and driven by various factors, including the increasing prevalence of respiratory diseases and the aging population.

Certified respiratory therapist career tips

Develop strong technical skills

CRTs must be proficient in various medical equipment, such as ventilators, oxygen concentrators, and nebulizers. You’ll need to have a solid understanding of respiratory therapy techniques and be able to operate and troubleshoot complex medical equipment.

Hone critical thinking and problem-solving skills

These professionals must have strong critical thinking and problem-solving skills to assess and diagnose patient conditions and develop effective treatment plans. You’ll need to be able to analyze patient data, identify trends, and develop innovative solutions to patient care challenges.

Develop strong interpersonal and communication skills

Excellent interpersonal and communication skills are essential to interact with patients, families, and healthcare providers. You’ll need to be able to explain complex medical concepts in clear, simple terms and collaborate effectively with other caregivers and healthcare providers.

Stay current with industry trends

The respiratory therapy industry is constantly evolving, and staying current with new developments, trends, and best practices is essential. Attend relevant seminars and conferences and participate in continuing education courses to keep up to date with changes in the industry.

Develop compassion and empathy

Compassion and empathy are critical for these therapists to provide exceptional patient care. You’ll need to demonstrate care and concern for patients, understand their needs, and provide empathetic solutions.

Build a strong foundation in anatomy and physiology

Certified respiratory therapists must have a strong foundation in anatomy and physiology to understand the respiratory system and diagnose respiratory conditions. Ensure you have a solid understanding of these concepts and their applications in respiratory therapy.

Build effective respiratory therapy skills

CRTs must have a comprehensive understanding of respiratory therapy principles and techniques. You’ll need to become a subject matter expert in the industry, company, and business processes to provide insights and recommendations that drive patient satisfaction.

Build a professional network

Networking is critical for staying informed about job opportunities, industry trends, and best practices. Connect with other respiratory therapists, healthcare providers, and industry experts by attending conferences, seminars, and local meetups. Join professional associations, such as:

  • American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC)
  • National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC)
  • American Lung Association (ALA)

Where the certified respiratory therapist jobs are

Top companies

  • Mayo Clinic
  • Kindred Health
  • Select Medical
  • DaVita
  • HCA Healthcare

Top states

  • California
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • Glassdoor
  • LinkedIn
  • Health eCareers


What are the educational requirements for becoming a certified respiratory therapist?

To become a CRT, one must have at least an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy. This program should be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care. Coursework generally includes human anatomy, physiology, chemistry, microbiology, pharmacology, and mathematics. After obtaining a degree, aspiring respiratory therapists must pass a national exam to become a CRT. Some choose to continue their education and earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree in the field.

Is certification necessary for a respiratory therapist?

Yes, certification is necessary and a fundamental requirement for practicing as a respiratory therapist in most states. The CRT credential is a mandatory stepping-stone to becoming a RRT, which is a higher-level certification. Additionally, specialized certifications in areas like neonatal/pediatric care or sleep disorder testing can enhance professional credibility.

What types of skills are crucial for a certified respiratory therapist?

CRTs need to have a strong understanding of medical and scientific principles. They should also be adept at problem-solving, as they’ll often need to adapt and respond to changing patient conditions. Interpersonal and communication skills are also critical, given the need to explain procedures to patients, work in a team, and liaise with other healthcare professionals. Technical skills for operating and maintaining a variety of medical equipment are necessary as well.

What are the typical work environments for a certified respiratory therapist?

CRTs typically work in hospitals, including in specialized environments like neonatal intensive care units and operating rooms. Other potential work environments include long-term care facilities, rehabilitation centers, and patients’ homes. Some also work in educational settings, teaching future practitioners of respiratory care.

What does a typical day look like for a certified respiratory therapist?

A typical day for a CRT might include assessing patients, implementing treatment plans, operating and maintaining equipment, and monitoring patient progress. They may also provide emergency care, like artificial respiration. The day might also include meetings with other healthcare professionals, patient education, and record-keeping tasks. It’s important to note that they often work long shifts that cover nights, weekends, and holidays.

Is there a high risk of exposure to infectious diseases as a certified respiratory therapist?

Like many healthcare professions, being a CRT does carry a risk of exposure to infectious diseases. However, strict health and safety protocols, including the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), are in place to mitigate these risks. Regular training and awareness of current guidelines and procedures for infection control are also crucial aspects of the job.

How can a certified respiratory therapist contribute to patient education and self-management?

A CRT can contribute to patient education and self-management by teaching patients about their respiratory conditions, explaining the purpose and benefits of prescribed treatments, demonstrating the proper use of equipment and techniques, and providing guidance on lifestyle modifications to improve respiratory health.

What role does a certified respiratory therapist play in emergencies?

In emergencies, a CRT may be involved in assessing and stabilizing patients with respiratory distress. They can administer emergency therapies, assist with intubation and ventilation, and collaborate with other emergency care providers to ensure optimal patient outcomes.

What are the physical demands of being a certified respiratory therapist?

The role of a CRT can be physically demanding. They often need to be on their feet for long periods, and they may need to lift or turn patients. Operating complex equipment and performing procedures that require manual dexterity is also a significant part of the job.

How is technology changing the role of certified respiratory therapists?

Technology plays a vital role in respiratory therapy. Advances in equipment and software have increased the effectiveness of patient assessments, monitoring, and treatments. Telehealth is also becoming more prevalent, allowing respiratory therapists to provide care and guidance remotely.