Respiratory Care: A Variety of Roles

  • Article by: Laura French
  • Star Tribune Sales and Marketing
  • April 8, 2009 - 9:22 AM

Respiratory Care Practitioners take care of patients with heart and lung problems. As the population ages, the demand for respiratory therapists is expected to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts a 19 percent increase in demand between 2006 and 2016.

Inside Hospitals

Currently, about 79 percent of respiratory therapy jobs are in hospitals, according to BLS statistics. Respiratory therapists are found in a range of departments and roles.

• In emergency rooms, they provide life-saving care to people who have had heart attacks or strokes or have experienced electrical shocks or drownings. In some hospitals, respiratory therapists are part of the surface and air emergency transport teams.

• In pediatric and newborn units, respiratory therapists help newborns and premature infants whose lungs may not be well enough developed to breathe on their own. Improvements in respiratory therapy have helped to increase the survival rate for premature babies.

• Surgery patients recover more quickly from anesthesia thanks to respiratory therapists. They assist the anesthesiologist in monitoring patients' breathing during surgery. After the surgery, they administer oxygen to help clear the anesthesia from the patients' system.

• Ventilators managed by respiratory therapists keep critically ill patients alive in intensive care units.

Outside Hospitals

According to BLS, "The vast majority of job openings will continue to be in hospitals." However, there are also many opportunities for respiratory therapists outside of hospital settings.

• Skilled nursing facilities and pulmonary rehabilitation programs employ respiratory therapists who provide on-going monitoring and care for patients with emphysema and obstructive pulmonary disorder (OPD).

• Respiratory therapists enable people with respiratory diseases or those living on ventilators to live in their own homes by providing in-home monitoring and treatment.

• Sleep laboratories address patients' sleep apnea and other sleep disorders. Respiratory therapists help to diagnose disorders and educate patients on treatments such as continuous pressure and (CPAP) machines.

Other non-hospital roles for respiratory therapists include asthma education programs and smoking cessation programs. Respiratory therapists can also work for doctors or clinics, conducting pulmonary function tests and providing patient education.

According to the BLS, it is not uncommon for a respiratory therapist to combine two or more of these jobs - working 35 to 40 hours in a hospital setting during the day and teaching a smoking cessation class in the evening, for example.

The American Association for Respiratory Care provides career information on its website. Go to and click on "Career."

Laura French is principal of Words Into Action, Inc., and is a freelance writer from Roseville.

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