Respiratory therapists in demand as 'unique problems' increase
David L. Vines is chairman and program director of respiratory care at Rush University Medical Center. (March 18, 2013)
Respiratory therapy is one of the nation's most in-demand health care fields due to the prevalence and seriousness of pulmonary disease, and because respiratory problems are common with organ failure and cardiopulmonary disorders.
The number of people with asthma also continues to grow and has driven demand for respiratory care. Asthma affects more than 26 million people in the United States, up from about 20 million in 2001, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Respiratory therapists (RTs) deliver complex treatments that require considerable independent judgment, sometimes involving life-and-death decisions, said David L. Vines, chairman and program director of the respiratory care program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Vines said RTs must have strong critical-thinking skills to develop a comprehensive treatment plan tailored to each patient's specific needs.
"You have to be able to find solutions to unique problems," Vines said.
A 23-year veteran of the field, Vines said he was drawn to respiratory therapy because of his great interest in human physiology and the field's evolving use of highly technical equipment in treating patients.
"There is always something exciting and innovative coming out," he said.
RTs take on a variety of roles in acute care, long-term care, assisted-living centers, ERs, rehabilitation centers, diagnostic units and, increasingly, in home care, as new technologies have made it easier to treat aging and disabled patients at their homes rather than in a medical facility.
The daily work is a balance of providing care, educating patients and their families, and coordinating with a team of health care professionals. Emergency care, such as when caring for a victim of a heart attack, stroke, drowning or shock, requires aggressive, often life-saving treatments that typically include mechanical ventilation.
In this "fast-paced, high-stress environment," RTs must be "driven by a desire to help people," Vines said.
"You have to be able to deal with the stress of being in a critical-care environment," he said, adding that "you will have multiple patients and you typically rotate through multiple floors throughout the day."
But delivering a successful treatment and seeing a patient recover is "one of the greatest feelings you could have" as an RT.
"It's amazing to give someone back their quality of life," he said.
Good salary, job growth
Current standards require RTs to earn, at a minimum, an associate's degree from an accredited program. All 48 contiguous states require permits or licensure, which often involves completion of continuing education courses to remain certified.
The National Board of Respiratory Care offers certification, and two credentials are awarded to RTs who meet the requirements: Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) and the more-advanced Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT).
In 2011, RTs made a median salary of $55,250, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The highest-paid RTs made around $74,400, while the lowest-paid earned around $40,660.
Employment of respiratory therapists is expected to grow by 28 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to BLS data.
"I see the demand continuing to grow," Vines said.
More RTs with advanced degrees are especially needed to fill positions being vacated by a rising number of retiring RTs and educators, he said.