Respiratory Therapist Job Description:
One of the things I like most about being a respiratory therapist is the wide range of duties we perform and the variety of patients. We work with patients as young as the newly born to the elderly, and everyone from the short-of-breath to the critically ill. We monitor oxygen, give breathing treatments, monitor the ventilators, assist traumas in the ER, and do CPR during emergencies (code blues).
We provide the medicated treatments for asthmatics and people with other chronic lung diseases, and perform the tests that diagnose many lung diseases. We also draw arterial blood that shows the amount of oxygen currently in the blood stream (and more). For critically ill people unable to breathe on their own, we monitor the machines that breathe for them. When a person stops breathing or their heart stops beating, then we perform CPR - cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
What is the education required for a respiratory therapist career?
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The degree is the key to respiratory therapy. An Associate’s program was offered at one of our local community colleges, Ozarks Technical Community, which was my start. But I, like many of my co-workers, will be continuing my education on to at least a bachelor’s degree. The process is the same as many other health fields; prerequisites of chemistry, anatomy, physiology, microbiology, etc. must be fulfilled.
Entry into the program provides a detailed one-year course of in-class study, hands-on laboratory work with all the machines and techniques of the field, and even more hands-on technical skill in local hospitals. For the entire duration of my program, we were placed in the hospital setting three days a week working regular shifts, following and participating in patient care with clinical instructors designated by the respiratory department.
To complete the program, a series of exit exams, comparable to state licensing exams, must be taken and passed. Following graduation, the actual state licensing tests have to be taken. There are three exams, the first is for state licensure as a certified respiratory therapist, the next two exams go together for state licensure as a registered respiratory therapist.
How did you start your respiratory therapist career?
When I first entered the respiratory therapy program, I assumed I was a unique case since it was a second career for me, but I found that I wasn't alone. While most of the people in my class were in their 20’s and beginning their first career, there were several of us old-timers going back to school and looking for second careers and a good source of health insurance for our families. My first career was as a hotel convention planner for a dozen years.
In 1996, I quit the hotel business to open my own small cake decorating and catering business, but with time, my hands began to give out and I was no long able to decorate without excruciating pain. There’s always a silver lining. I had always been a writer in my heart and on the side of whatever day job I had at the time.
So I was able to turn to my real passion of writing. However, several magazine articles and half a novel into my writing career, my husband suffered a heart attack that left us paying exorbitant premiums for insurance. My husband is self-employed, and without group coverage, health insurance can be a scary proposition. Because of his heart disease, I knew that I needed to find another career where I could get premium benefits, good pay, and a flexible schedule to work around my writing.
I had always been interested in health and medicine, so I looked into the Allied Health programs that would have me back in the work force as quickly as possible. Respiratory therapy appealed to me because of growing up with a brother with cystic fibrosis and spending most of my teenaged years in CF clinics and hospitals with him. I had also recently been diagnosed with adult-onset asthma.
Respiratory therapy fit well for my needs and curiosity. Most of what interests us in life is usually sparked by self-interest, I’ve found. After meeting the directors of the program at Ozarks Technical Community College and catching the bug of their passion and enthusiasm for the field, I was hooked and applied.
Besides gaining respiratory therapist training, what advice would you give to those interested in this field?
I think the best piece of advice that I could give to any aspiring respiratory therapist is to job shadow. Call the hospitals in your area and set up a least a few hours or a shift with a respiratory therapist at each one. There are so many aspects to our job, so it’s good to have a feel for what you’re getting into. One of the things I didn’t realize was how involved we are in every emergency (code) situation; CPR is our job.
What is the occupational outlook for respiratory therapist jobs?
Unfortunately, the occupational outlook for respiratory therapist jobs is very good. I say “unfortunately” because with the aging baby boomer population, plus smoking is still so wide-spread and the incidences of chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) are on the rise. Other diseases such as asthma are also increasing in number. The last projections I saw from the government showed a steady increase in job opportunities for respiratory therapists through 2020.
Are there factors that affect a respiratory therapist salary?
Aside from geographic region and hospital size, respiratory therapists who are both certified respiratory therapists and registered respiratory therapists are higher paid than those who stop at the certified respiratory therapist level. Also, hospitals always pay a shift differential (evening or overnight shift) and that can add several dollars (an hour) to respiratory therapist wages.
Respiratory therapists are employed in hospitals, home health care, skilled nursing facilities, pulmonary rehab facilities, pulmonary function testing labs and in medical equipment sales. All the fields pay comparably, as most of them are associated with a specific hospital system, except medical equipment sales; that pay can be higher depending on the particular company.
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