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Respiratory Therapist Jobs, Training, Programs, and More: The Complete Guide

Respiratory therapists care for individuals affected by respiratory diseases, like asthma and COPD, and other causes of breathing difficulties. They take blood samples, perform pulmonary functioning tests, develop respiratory care plans and provide life support services for patients. These professionals are compassionate, detail-oriented and excellent problem solvers.

According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, asthma affects more than 25 million people in the U.S., and roughly 14.8 million U.S. adults have been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)1.

If this sounds like you and something you’re interested in, this guide has everything you need to know about how to become a respiratory therapist. Keep reading for respiratory therapist job duties, skills, education, California licensing, Respiratory Therapist education programs and more. If you’re already a respiratory therapist and want to discover ways to further your career, you may want to explore a BRST.

Why Become a Respiratory Therapist in California?

One factor driving projected job growth has to do with the aging population. As people age, respiratory conditions, like COPD and pneumonia, become more common. Respiratory therapists will be needed to treat individuals with these conditions.

If you’re intrigued by science and feel called to serve in a healthcare setting, you might consider becoming a respiratory therapist. Currently, California has the highest employment level of respiratory therapists, the BLS reports3.

What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

A respiratory therapist treats patients who have difficulty breathing. Respiratory therapists may care for individuals who have respiratory diseases, such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, bronchitis, emphysema, lung cancer, or pneumonia. Their patients have a wide age range, from infants with lung development issues to seniors with breathing disorders. Additionally, respiratory therapists provide emergency care for individuals dealing with heart attacks or shock.

Common job duties of respiratory therapists include:

  • Check patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders
  • Create patient treatment plans with the help of physicians
  • Administer diagnostic tests, such as taking lung capacity measurements
  • Care for patients using various treatment methods, such as chest physiotherapy and aerosol medications
  • Observe and track patient progress
  • Educate patients on medication and equipment use

What Is a Respiratory Therapist’s Typical Day Like?

Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals, nursing care facilities and physician offices7. They work closely with nurses, physicians, surgeons and medical assistants to evaluate and treat patients throughout the day.

Respiratory therapists often take blood samples to analyze patients’ levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Administering chest physiotherapy is another common activity. This is done by vibrating a patient’s rib cage, tapping their chest and having the patient cough. Chest physiotherapy gets rid of excess mucus, making it easier for patients to breathe. Respiratory therapists may also connect patients to ventilators, monitor ventilator equipment and clean life support systems as needed.

What Skills Does a Respiratory Therapist Need?

Respiratory therapists need a combination of hard and soft skills to work closely with patients and medical staff. Necessary hard skills are typically gained through an associate degree program with anatomy, physiology and math courses.

Soft skills focus more on a respiratory therapist’s bedside manner and ability to work with others. Important soft skills or qualities noted by the BLS include8:

  • Compassion
  • Attention to detail
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Patience
  • Problem-solving ability

Find Your Path as a Respiratory Therapist

SJVC is committed to hands-on training in the skills you need as a respiratory therapist. Learn more about our program and exciting opportunities.

How to Become a Respiratory Therapist in California

Becoming a respiratory therapist in California involves obtaining your license from the Respiratory Care Board of California. To apply for licensure, you have to meet education, credential examination and ethics course requirements outlined by the Board9. To find out what are the requirements to be a respiratory therapist in California, review each of the steps below:

1. Complete an Approved Respiratory Care Education Program

All applicants must complete a respiratory care education program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), earning at least an associate’s degree. You can find a list of approved programs in California on the Respiratory Care Board of California’s website10.

The Board may waive your respiratory therapy education requirement in certain instances, such as: if you’ve completed significant work experience, have a good-standing license in a different state, or have equivalent military experience and training.

2. Earn Your RRT Credential 

After you’ve completed your education program, you must earn your Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) credential through the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). To earn your RRT credential, you have to pass the Therapist Multiple-Choice (TMC) Examination and Clinical Simulation Examination (CSE)11. You must pass the TMC examination before you can take the CSE.

The TMC Examination has two cut scores. The low cut score warrants a Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) certification through the NBRC. The high cut score enables you to take the CSE. Once you’ve successfully passed the TMC examination and CSE, you’ll earn your RRT credential.

3. Complete a Board-Approved Law and Ethics Course

The Respiratory Care Board of California requires all applicants to complete one Board-approved Law and Professional Ethics Course before becoming licensed. The Board has approved two online courses developed by the California Society for Respiratory Care (CSRC) and the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC)12,13. Each course is 3-hours long and touches on respiratory therapists’ obligation to patients, responsibility to report illegal activities, and licensure status and acts that compromise it.

4. Apply for Licensure

You can apply for a respiratory therapist license in California up to 90 days before meeting the respiratory therapy education requirements. Licensure application information can be found on the Respiratory Care Board of California’s website14. Before sending your application to the Board, make sure you’ve read the application instructions thoroughly and completed the application in its entirety.

How to Choose the Right Respiratory Therapy Program

Respiratory therapists typically need at least an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy. Choosing the right Respiratory Therapy program for you involves researching and prioritizing. What respiratory therapist school factors are most important to you? We developed the below list to help you decide, because a lot of things make a school a good fit.

  • Location: If you want to complete at least some respiratory therapy classes in-person, location is an important factor to consider. How far are you willing to drive? This will impact which respiratory therapy degree programs you consider.
  • Price: Gaining respiratory therapy education is an investment, but it’s one you want to make wisely. Program cost and available financial aid will likely affect which schools you consider. Determine how much you can spend on your program and if you’ll need financial assistance.
  • Class format: There are online, in-person and hybrid respiratory therapy degree programs. Which class format is best for you? It might depend on whether you can attend school full time or need flexibility to accommodate your work schedule.
  • Duration: Depending on how quickly you want to become a respiratory therapist, you may consider a respiratory therapy school based on its program length. Associate degree programs take about two years to complete, while bachelor degree programs take around four years to complete.
  • Faculty:Your teachers matter. As you research respiratory therapy schools, read about their faculty. How many years of experience do they have? Do they pursue any respiratory care research interests? Do they seem passionate about teaching respiratory therapy?
  • Hands-on training: Many respiratory therapy schools require and connect you with work experience, externships or internships. Gaining hands-on training during school can help you gain experience and confidence. It may even lead to job opportunities, or at least help you build your professional network and climb the respiratory therapy caree ladder.

What Will I Learn in a Respiratory Therapy Degree Program

As you complete your respiratory therapy education, you’ll learn the skills necessary to become a clinically-competent respiratory therapist. Three key respiratory therapy classes typically include anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, and clinical practice. An anatomy and physiology course teaches you about fundamental systems in the human body. In pharmacology, you’ll learn essential pharma terms and effects of medications on the body. In a clinical practice class, you’ll apply the knowledge you learned by treating respiratory patients.

Other topics covered in your respiratory therapy classes may include:

  • General chemistry
  • Microbiology
  • Physics
  • Math
  • Introduction to respiratory care
  • Fundamentals of respiratory care
  • Ventilator and equipment principles
  • Therapeutic and diagnostic procedures
  • Patient assessment
  • Critical care
  • Advanced respiratory care
  • Specialized respiratory care

How Long Does it Take to Become a Respiratory Therapist?

It takes about two years to become a respiratory therapist. Within this two-year timeline, you’ll complete an associate degree program in respiratory care and the other requirements for licensure. It can take more than two years to become a respiratory therapist if you decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree, which takes an average of four years to complete, or obtain licensure through work experience.

Kickstart Your Career as a Respiratory Therapist

Small class sizes, individual attention, and hands-on training in the skills you need. Learn more about how to become a respiratory therapist with SJVC.

Respiratory Therapy Jobs

Respiratory therapy jobs can be found in various settings. According to the BLS, the industries with the highest level of respiratory therapist employment are 15:

  • Medical and surgical hospitals
  • Specialty hospitals
  • Nursing care facilities
  • Physicians’ offices
  • Rental and leasing services

woman listening to man's back

Learn about SJVC’s Respiratory Therapy program

SJVC’s Respiratory Therapy program will help you become a respiratory therapist. In as few as 19 months, you can earn an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy and prepare for credentialing exams. You’ll also gain Basic Life Support (BLS), Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS), Pediatric Advanced Life Support Provider (PALS) and Neonatal Resuscitation Provider (NRP) certifications. Are you ready to jumpstart your career, explore our Respiratory Therapy programand request more information today.

SJVC Respiratory Therapy Faculty and Students

SJVC takes a personal approach to preparing graduates for professional success. Our faculty members are experienced and passionate about helping you reach your career goals—whether they involve furthering your healthcare career or changing industries altogether. With students of different backgrounds and ages, you’ll develop respiratory therapist skills in a robust community.

Learn About Respiratory Therapy Programs Near You

SJVC’s Respiratory Therapy program is available at the following campuses:

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