Autonomy, Technology And Compassion Make Respiratory Therapy Challenging Yet Rewarding

  • Article by: NANCY CROTTI , Star Tribune Sales and Marketing
  • Updated: July 28, 2009 - 3:37 PM

Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals, or at least get their start there. Their jobs evolve with technology but the basics remain the same. They must think on their feet, be good educators and provide crucial services to many different types of patients.

The work of hospital-based respiratory therapists runs the gamut from critical care to patient education and from pediatrics to geriatrics. One registered respiratory therapist describes it as the perfect combination of technology and compassionate care.

Debra Skees, who manages respiratory services at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids (www.allinamercy.org), says she enjoys the autonomy and variety of her work, plus the ability to use critical thinking skills.

Protocols Free Therapists To Act Fast

"At Mercy, we use Respiratory Care Assess and Treat protocols, which are approved by the medical staff. They authorize the therapist to be proactive in assessing the patient and determining what interventions are appropriate," Skees explains. "We can provide the right care to the patient in a very timely and cost-effective way."

Respiratory technology has evolved considerably over the past several years, according to Skees. "The equipment and technology we use, such as mechanical ventilators, allow us to improve patient outcome, comfort and synchronization to the patient's needs," she says.

Where The Work Is

Respiratory therapists work 'round the clock in emergency departments; intensive care units, including neonatal intensive care; pediatrics and general medical-surgical units. They may specialize in providing pulmonary function testing and education to patients and families about managing a chronic respiratory disease such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

"We're also part of the rapid response team in hospitals to address emergent needs of patients, as well as serving on the resuscitation teams that respond to any kind of interaction where a patient would have either a cardiac or a respiratory arrest," adds Paul LaMere, a registered respiratory therapist and director of Clinical Education in the Respiratory Therapy Program at St. Catherine University (www.stkate.edu) in St. Paul.

Education And Job Outlook

Respiratory therapy students rotate through hospital departments to get a feeling for what it will be like to work in each, LaMere says. Most students enter the St. Catherine's program with one or two years of college under their belts and progress to more acute-care clinical settings as their education progresses. Other area institutions that offer bachelor's degrees in respiratory therapy include the Mayo School of Health Sciences in Rochester (www.mayo.edu) and North Dakota State University in Fargo (www.ndsu.nodak.edu). Two-year degrees are offered at Saint Paul College (www.saintpaul.edu) and Lake Superior College in Duluth (www.lsc.edu).

Skees compares the current job market for respiratory therapists to that of nurses, but expects it to pick up as the economy improves. Starting salaries are in the mid- to high-$40,000s for therapists with bachelor's degrees.

"Respiratory therapists are important members of the healthcare team and the need to provide care to patients with cardio-pulmonary impairment will always be present," she says.

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