Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT)

A respiratory therapy specialist is responsible for helping those who suffer from respiratory and pulmonary conditions and disorders. Their daily tasks include examining patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders, performing diagnostic tests like lung capacity and nasal capabilities, and treating patients for chest physiotherapy and aerosol medications.

In addition to monitoring, recording, and communicating patient progress, respiratory therapists consult with physicians to draft and develop patient treatment plans and teach clients and patients about medication, equipment, and prognostic treatment plans.

Apart from these essential duties, respiratory therapy specialists work collaboratively with respiratory physicians and other healthcare professionals to ensure that patients receive the best care possible. Certified respiratory therapy specialists are a class of healthcare workers that have come into high demand. 

There is currently an ever-growing need for the specialized, certified skillset of respiratory therapists. These jobs exist at all levels of healthcare—especially as awareness of pulmonary health and the relationship between pollution and the environment increases, so too will the demand for specialized respiratory care.

Respiratory therapists test the lung capacity of patients by guiding their breath into diagnostic instruments as well as taking blood samples. These samples are submitted for tests and help pulmonologists and their teams best treat patients with specific respiratory conditions. 

Respiratory therapists are physiotherapy experts, removing mucus from patient’s lungs, treating patients with cystic fibrosis, and offering relief from pain and discomfort. RRTs might also work in a home-care capacity, educating patients and their families on how to use ventilators, life-support systems, and other medical devices related to pulmonology. They are also experts in supporting patients attempting to quit smoking and those dealing with sleep apnea and other respiratory disorders. 

In some cases, respiratory therapists are employed in an on-call capacity. In this role, they inspect ventilating equipment, check homes for environmental hazards, and discuss ways to alleviate symptoms with family members suffering from respiratory difficulties.

Read on to learn more about respiratory therapy, including a step-by-step guide on how to become a part of this growing, exciting industry.

Respiratory Therapist Specialization & Career Types

Respiratory therapy is used in combination with many other healthcare approaches to address the highly specialized needs of a wide variety of patients suffering from respiratory conditions. Given the age and lung condition of patients, respiratory professionals might specialize in a handful of ways. There are a number of respiratory therapist specializations and career types available for prospective respiratory professionals. They include:

  • Long-term care
  • Neonatal-pediatrics
  • Surface & air transport
  • Pulmonary rehab
  • Polysomnography
  • Respiratory education
  • Critical care
  • Respiratory case management
  • Respiratory home care
  • Pulmonary diagnostics
  • Respiratory therapy management

Admissions Requirements for Respiratory Therapy Programs

In terms of admissions requirements for students interested in careers in respiratory therapy, a background in the health sciences, healthcare administration, human health, wellness, or psychology are prime places to begin. University bachelor’s programs in respiratory therapy typically require completion of approximately 120 credits of undergraduate work in respiratory therapy or a related field. 

Most respiratory therapy professionals hold associate degrees; however, a bachelor’s degree can position students favorably to increase their earning potential.

Respiratory Therapy Program Accreditation & Certification

The vast majority of respiratory therapy programs are accredited by the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC). The Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC) oversees most programs in the country for respiratory therapy. The National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) is also a wonderful resource and accredits domestic programs, too.

To ensure one’s program of interest is accredited, all aspiring respiratory therapists are encouraged to ensure the school is at least regionally accredited by an organization recognized by the Commission for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

On-Campus Respiratory Therapy Degree Programs

Boise State 

This bachelor of science degree program in respiratory care from Boise State can be taken online or on campus. It provides the skills, knowledge, and best practices needed for professionals to excel in the field. 

Coursework for this undergraduate program includes instruction in respiratory care, pulmonology, health science, physiology, and anatomy. Notably, Boise State’s Department of Respiratory Care is among the best in the country. Their expert faculty of pulmonologists, oncologists, and radiation therapists pool their industry knowledge to guide students on their path to a career in respiratory therapy.

  • Location: Boise, ID
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), Society for Simulation in Healthcare
  • Tuition: $11,226,18 per credit

Concorde University

This associate degree program in respiratory therapy from Concorde University can provide prospective respiratory therapy professionals with the knowledge they need to enter the field. 

This AAS degree program trains students in critical study areas, including clinically-based coursework. The program focuses on respiratory education, critical care, respiratory home care, anatomy, respiratory therapy management, physiology, and other related aspects of the field. 

  • Location: Various
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care
  • Tuition: $18,864 per year

Moraine Park Technical College

In just two years students can earn an associate’s of applied science in respiratory therapy at Moraine Park Technical College. As a CoARC accredited program, students are required to participate in extensive hands-on clinical experiences in addition to lecture courses and labs. 

One benefit of this program is that students can receive credit for prior learning. While this includes traditional routes such as transfer credits for previous college coursework or credit for military training, it also includes the ability to receive credit for work experience by submitting a portfolio detailing expertise gained on the job. Students who are still in high school can complete dual credit classes in order to get a jump start on their associate’s degree. 

  • Location: Fond du Lac, WI
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care
  • Tuition: $211.50 per credit

Santa Fe Community College

The associate’s of applied science in respiratory therapy at Santa Fe Community College can be completed in just four semesters of full-time intensive coursework. While students must attend classes during this summer, this enables them to complete their required studies and clinical internships quickly. Clinicals are an integral part of this program and start the very first semester enrolled. Some of the clinicals are held on campus, while others are held at affiliate hospitals and clinics near the school. 

  • Location: Santa Fe, NM
  • Duration: Four semesters
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care
  • Tuition: 0.5 to 5.5 credits, $499 per credit; 6.0 to 11.5 credits, $1,053 per credit

Loma Linda University – School of Allied Health Professions

Aspiring respiratory therapists who want to earn a more advanced degree should consider the bachelor’s of science in respiratory care at Loma Linda University School of Allied Health Professions. 

This is a two-year degree, so students must have already completed 78 quarter-hours (or 52 semester-hours) of general education coursework prior to applying. This includes classes in humanities, sciences, math, psychology, and more. Unlike many other bachelor’s in respiratory therapy programs, this one is for students who are new to respiratory care and have no prior medical experience.  

The first year of this program includes lectures, labs, and 20 weeks of clinical experiences. The second year has students working directly with clients three to four days a week along with advanced lectures and research work on the days not in the clinic. 

  • Location: Loma Linda, CA
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care
  • Tuition: $32,436 for the first year and $37,944 for the second

Online Respiratory Therapy Degree Programs

Oregon Institute of Technology

The Oregon Institute of Technology is a public polytechnic university located in Klamath Falls, Oregon. The school offers a BS degree in respiratory care that focuses on pharmacology, disaster preparedness, advanced neonatal respiratory care, introductory statistics, chemistry, pediatric respiratory care, and mechanical ventilation. Courses in composition and mathematics are available. The program is designed for those who hold the registered respiratory therapist credential from the NBRC.

  • Location: Klamath Falls, OR
  • Duration: Three to four years
  • Accreditation: Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
  • Tuition: $281 per credit

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, also known as UNC Charlotte, is a public university located in Charlotte, NC that offers a BS degree in respiratory therapy. This fully online program requires 44 credits of courses in areas such as pharmacology, disease management, health outcomes, respiratory quality assessment, healthcare applications, and information technology. 

Students can choose a clinical area of focus in administrative, population-based, or the clinical discipline itself. Please note that students must hold an associate degree, an RRT credential, and be licensed in the state of North Carolina to enroll in this degree completion program. 

  • Location: Charlotte, NC 
  • Duration: Three to four years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care
  • Tuition: $188.48 per credit

Carlow University

The online bachelor’s of science in respiratory therapy at Carlow University is for professionals who already have a CRT or RRT credential but want to complete additional education. Earning a bachelor’s degree can often increase pay, boost job applications, and help with advancement opportunities. This program is offered entirely online and has no fieldwork requirements. 

Most students complete the required 30 to 32 credits in 18 to 24 months. Required courses for this degree include medical ethics in respiratory care, research and evidence-based practices, pharmacology, and pathophysiology. 

  • Location: Pittsburgh, PA
  • Duration: 18 to 24 months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care
  • Tuition: $568 per credit

Georgia Southern University

While there is a full-time traditional on-campus bachelor’s of science in respiratory therapy at Georgia Southern University, there is also a flexible entirely online option for students who already hold an RRT certification. 

Students in the completion program will receive credit for most of the classes completed for their associate’s degree, which significantly reduces the amount of time necessary to complete this degree. Students never have to travel to campus and will establish themselves with a respiratory therapist mentor at their home hospital or clinic in order to complete labs or coursework. 

  • Location: Savannah, GA
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care
  • Tuition: $182.13 per credit

University of Missouri

The University of Missouri’s online bachelor of health science in clinical and diagnostic sciences with an emphasis in respiratory therapy is a flexible program for those already holding an RRT credential. There are no on-campus visits required, and students can choose to attend full or part-time. 

Courses are offered in both semester-long and self-paced formats so students can work within a schedule or complete their studies at their own pace. Required classes cover topics such as advanced mechanical ventilation, adult critical care, clinical ethics, community and patient education, pediatric respiratory care, and pulmonary rehabilitation. Most students transfer in at least 30 semester-hours of coursework from their initial respiratory therapy education. Including transfer credits, students must earn 120 credits in order to complete this degree.  

  • Location: Columbia, MO
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care
  • Tuition: $436.52 per credit

How Long Does it Take to Become a Respiratory Therapist?

To become a respiratory therapist requires a minimum of one year of schooling, with up to four years, if pursuing a bachelor’s degree. Expect an additional six months to one year of study to become NBRC certified, plus a variable number of years in clinical respiratory therapy experience depending on the type of professional certification sought. 

How To Become a Respiratory Therapist – Step-by-Step Guide

Becoming a respiratory therapy specialist, as mentioned above, should take a minimum of about one year, and up to as many as seven if prospective respiratory therapy professionals take longer to gain clinical experience, industry experience in real-life settings, or an undergraduate degree.

Step 1: Graduate High School


As a high school student, a focus on the subjects of the health sciences, physiology, biology, natural sciences, and healthcare will help to build a solid foundation for courses of study in respiratory therapy.

Step 2: Earn an Undergraduate Degree (One to Four Years)

Earn a one-year respiratory therapy diploma or a two-year associate’s degree in respiratory therapy. An associate degree gives aspiring RRTs a foot in the door of the respiratory therapy world.

Aside from the more general education requirements, gaining a four-year bachelor of science (BS) in respiratory therapy science is ideal, but degrees in health services and healthcare administration can also provide the necessary skills. Regardless, certification as a respiratory therapist will be required before a student can claim the title.

Step 3: Gain Work Experience (One Year or More)


One way to advance a career as a respiratory therapist is to gain work experience in the healthcare industry itself. This should help you to prepare for certification and more advanced positions, which are typically necessary to qualify for positions in upper management or as clinical directors.

Step 4: Become a Certified Respiratory Therapy Official (Timeline Varies)

The NBRC offers two principal credentials for respiratory therapists: the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) and the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT). Consult the NBRC for more information on how and when to recertify as per state and federal regulations.

What Do Respiratory Therapists Do?

Respiratory therapists interview and examine patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders, perform diagnostic tests like lung capacity and nasal capabilities and treat patients for chest physiotherapy and aerosol medications. They also monitor, record, and communicate patient progress. 

In addition to these duties, respiratory therapists consult with physicians to draft and develop patient treatment plans and teach clients and patients about medication, equipment, and prognostic treatment plans.

Respiratory Therapist Certifications & Licensure

The National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) is the main credentialing organization for respiratory therapy. There are two primary credentials issued by the NBRC, which are the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) and Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT). There are also specialized certifications available in neonatal, critical care, and sleep disorders. 

In order to earn an NBRC credential, all aspiring respiratory therapists must be at least 18 years old and have completed a CoARC-accredited associate’s degree or have a combination of education, credentials, and work experience. 

The first exam a respiratory therapist must take is the Therapist Multiple-Choice (TMC). This three-hour exam is notoriously hard and covers all aspects of respiratory therapy. Once the exam is completed, candidates will receive a score. A low cut score earns the candidate the CRT credential. A high cut score earns the candidate a CRT credential and permission to sit for the Clinical Simulation Exam (CSE). Candidates who successfully pass the CSE earn an RRT credential. 

Respiratory therapists must be licensed in order to practice in every state except Alaska. All states that require licensing utilize the NBRC to administer their testing. There may be additional licensing requirements for each state beyond the test, so candidates should check with their local boards to ensure they have the required qualifications. 

How Much Do Respiratory Therapists Make?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021) reports that respiratory therapy is projected to add up to as many as 31,100 new jobs between 2020 and 2030—an increase of 23 percent, which is much faster than the projected average growth of all careers nationally in the same decade (8 percent). 

The BLS notes that the required entry-level education for a respiratory therapist is typically an associate degree, though on-the-job and postsecondary training or a bachelor’s degree in a related field can increase earning potential. 

As with most fields, a healthy combination of industry experience and the proper university credential will set up prospective respiratory therapists to go far.

Number of respiratory therapists employed in the U.S. (BLS May 2020): 136,300

  • 10th percentile: $45,940
  • 25th percentile: $54,170
  • 50th percentile (median): $62,810
  • 75th percentile: $75,950
  • 90th percentile: $89,170

Respiratory Therapist Career Alternatives

Here are a few alternatives to a career as a respiratory therapist. 

Become a Physical Therapist Assistant

Physical therapists have completed years of training and experience in how to help rehabilitate patients. They rely on physical therapy assistants to help them carry out treatment plans, evaluate patient’s abilities, and provide education on care to families and clients. Physical therapy assistants can also help lift and move clients as well as maintain client records and perform other clerical tasks.  

  • Typical Education: Associate degree 
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT)

Become a Physician Assistant 

Physician assistants work under the supervision of a physician to provide quality medical care to patients. They work in all fields of medicine, including internal medicine, family practice, gynecology, pediatrics, and more. Some may even work in clinical research. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA)

Become a Registered Nurse

In many healthcare settings, registered nurses provide the majority of patient care. They work under the supervision of a physician and can do everything from administering medications and vaccines to monitoring patients and assisting with surgeries. Some nurses may work in public health education, providing patient education. 

  • Typical Education: Associate or bachelor’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN)
Kenneth Parker

Kenneth Parker

Writer

Kenneth is a feature writer, poet, and musician living in the Pacific Northwest. His writing on remote work, education, and technology has been published by BustedCubicle.com, MedicalTechnologySchools.com, and other websites. His poetry, short fiction, and album reviews have appeared in Scifaikuest, Nanoism, and No Clean Singing. His background includes time spent as an associate editor, proofreader, private grammar instructor, freelance content editor, medical claims agent, and SEO consultant. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon, where he studied literature and worked as a composition tutor.

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