What Is a Respiratory Therapist?

If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, or any other respiratory disease, chances are you will receive health care from a respiratory therapist at some point in your life. However, respiratory therapists are not well-known outside of major medical centers such as hospitals or skilled nursing facilities.

In this article, we will help you understand what a respiratory therapist does and how they can contribute to your health care plan, particularly if you suffer from a respiratory disease.


A respiratory therapist is best described as a licensed health care professional who can assess and treat patients suffering from acute and chronic cardiopulmonary diseases.

Some of the conditions that respiratory therapists treat include COPD, asthma, lung cancer, emphysema, bronchitis, pneumonia, and other respiratory ailments that may occur because of a secondary health problem. Many cardiac diseases such as pulmonary edema and congestive heart failure can lead to breathing problems, so it is not uncommon to see a respiratory therapist on your treatment team if any of these conditions lead to breathing difficulties.

Why Do We Need Respiratory Therapists?

With nurses and doctors already handling many of the tasks in patient care, why do we need respiratory therapists? The answer to that question has to do with the volume of respiratory-related problems worldwide:

  • According to the World Health Organization, COPD causes 6% of all deaths worldwide [1]. Additionally, 235 million people worldwide suffer from asthma[1].
  • According to the Environmental Protection Agency, urban areas and communities near industrial facilities are still significantly affected by toxic air pollutants (although overall trends are improving)[2].
  • According to the American Lung Association, smoking rates are lower than they were in the 1970s; however, smoking rates have remained stable at 23% of the US population for the last 15 years[3]. Additionally, although lung cancer rates have declined by 22% in men since 1975, lung cancer has increased in women by about 107% over the same period[3].
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified the 2017–2018 flu season as a high severity season[4], with one source calling it the worse flu season since the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

Although there are some positive trends in the way of air pollution, this data shows that there are still significant challenges related to respiratory ailments.

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As a partner in the healthcare team of physicians, nurses, and other allied healthcare professionals, respiratory therapists play a unique role in caring for patients with diseases that specifically affect breathing. And since so many people suffer from breathing problems for a variety of reasons, respiratory therapists are a much-needed caregiver to treat those problems with more specificity.

The Difference Between a Respiratory Therapist and a Nurse

Respiratory therapists are often mistaken to be nurses in the hospital since they also wear scrubs and perform many of the same duties that a nurse does. But there are differences.

First, respiratory therapists focus mainly on therapies, medications, and procedures that have a direct influence on the cardiopulmonary system. For instance, respiratory therapists do not administer 95% of the medicines that nurses do. Also, nurses generally perform more routine procedures than respiratory therapists do, such as placing IVs and managing foley catheters for urine collection. Respiratory therapists, on the other hand, are more commonly found in emergent situations such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or the use of mechanical ventilation (a respirator) in the intensive care unit.

Second, nurses and respiratory therapists are licensed by different state boards. Although most boards answer to the same state government agencies, nursing and respiratory therapist boards are separate and have their own licensing requirements.

Finally, while most patients in an inpatient or outpatient medical clinic will be seeing a nurse, respiratory therapists are only called on in specific situations. If you are not having problems with your breathing, you probably will not see a respiratory therapist since their services are not clinically indicated.

Where Can You Find a Respiratory Therapist?

If you are having a serious breathing problem in the hospital, chances are a respiratory therapist will be there. Some of the areas where you might see a respiratory therapist include a(n):

  • Adult, pediatric, or neonatal intensive care unit
  • Emergency room
  • Operating room
  • Telemetry unit in a hospital
  • Pulmonary function test lab
  • Sleep disorder center
  • Home health visit
  • Smoking cessation class
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation
  • Skilled nursing facility

Most of these areas are either emergency, acute-care, or highly specialized.

What Are the Job Duties of a Respiratory Therapist?

If you were ever to need the services of a respiratory therapist, some of the procedures and duties you might see them doing include:

  • Managing an artificial airway such as an endotracheal or tracheostomy tube
  • Drawing arterial blood for oxygen and carbon dioxide analysis
  • Managing a mechanical ventilator in the intensive care unit or emergency room
  • Providing nebulizer treatments to patients with acute breathing problems
  • Measuring lung capacity and level of impairment for various pulmonary diseases
  • Reviewing chest x-rays to determine the status of the lungs and artificial airways
  • Providing medical care during CPR
  • Providing patient education for asthma, COPD, or any other respiratory-related illnesses

Although there are many more duties than the list above, here is the primary thing to remember: If you were to need medical care because of a breathing problem, a doctor would likely order medications or procedures to be performed by a respiratory therapist since they have more specialized training in that area.

What Are the Qualifications of a Respiratory Therapist?

Just like doctors and nurses, respiratory therapists are licensed and certified by state and national agencies to perform the duties of providing respiratory care.

Every state in the US has a board that licenses and manages respiratory therapists. These boards are responsible for keeping records of the licensee to ensure they continue to meet the requirements for licensure and safe practice.

Additionally, there is a national agency called the National Board for Respiratory Care that administers certifications, which names the individual as a Registered Respiratory Therapist.

As with most licensing boards, the purpose of the respiratory care board is to ensure that the individual remains fit to provide medical care by keeping track of any claims of malpractice or any other issue that might affect one’s ability to provide safe medical care.

Should I Request to Work with a Respiratory Therapist?

If you suffer from any cardiopulmonary disease that is starting to affect your ability to breathe, you should request to have a respiratory therapist on your care team.

Although nurses are expected to have the same knowledge as respiratory therapists, they often have to consider a lot more than just the respiratory system when providing care. For that reason, nurses may not have the specialized knowledge, or the time, to educate patients on the proper techniques when it comes to respiratory therapy and any of the equipment that goes along with it.

Asking anyone aside from a respiratory therapist to perform respiratory therapy is similar to taking your car to an auto repair shop that isn’t familiar with the make and model. The repair shop could probably figure out how to fix your car, but you will wonder how much they know about your specific make and model, and if they will be using the appropriate parts.

Final Thoughts

Respiratory therapists are specialized health care professionals who provide therapy to alleviate breathing problems. If you suffer from a respiratory or cardiac illness, it is advisable to request an appointment with a respiratory therapist because they have more specialized training in the medications, equipment, and procedures that affect breathing.

For more information about respiratory therapists, talk to your doctor or primary care provider.

Page last updated: October 3, 2018
[1] World Health Organization. Chronic respiratory diseases. https://www.who.int/health-topics/chronic-respiratory-diseases#tab=tab_1
[2] Environmental Protection Agency. Air Pollution: Current and Future Challenges. https://www.epa.gov/clean-air-act-overview/air-pollution-current-and-future-challenges
[3] American Lung Association. Trends in Tobacco Use. Published: July 2011. http://www.lung.org/assets/documents/research/tobacco-trend-report.pdf
[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Influenza Activity in the United States During the 2017–18 Season and Composition of the 2018–19 Influenza Vaccine. Published: June 7, 2018 https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6722a4.htm?s_cid=mm6722a4_w/

About Scott Ridl: Scott joined American Medical Sales and Rentals in 2008 as a Web Manager and Content Writer. He is a writer and designer. He is extensively trained on oxygen therapy products from leading manufacturers such as Inogen, Respironics, Chart, Invacare, ResMed and more. Scott works closely with respiratory therapists and oxygen specialists to educate the community about oxygen therapy products, COPD, asthma and lung diseases. He writes weekly columns and is passionate about educating the community on oxygen therapy and respiratory issues.

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