Nurse with infant

About The Career

You may live without water for a few days and without food for a few weeks. But without air, you will suffer brain damage within a few minutes and die within approximately 6 minutes. Respiratory Therapists, also known as respiratory care practitioners, evaluate, treat, and care for patients with breathing disorders.

In evaluating patients, therapists test the capacity of the lungs and analyze the oxygen and carbon dioxide concentration and pH, (a measure of the acidity or alkalinity level) of the blood. To measure lung capacity, therapists have patients breathe into an instrument that measures the volume and flow of air during inhalation and exhalation. Comparing the reading with the norm for the patient's age, height, weight, and sex, the respiratory therapist can determine whether lung deficiencies exist. To analyze oxygen, carbon dioxide, and pH levels, patients’ therapists take an arterial blood sample, measure it in a special gas analyzer, and relay the results to patients’ physician.

Respiratory therapists treat all types and ages of patients, from the premature infants whose lungs are not fully developed to elderly people whose lungs are diseased. They provide temporary relief to patients with chronic asthma or emphysema and emergency care for heart failure, stroke, drowning, or shock victims. Respiratory therapist commonly use a nasal cannula on a patient and set the oxygen flow at the level prescribed by a physician to increase the patient's oxygen concentration. Therapists also connect patients who cannot breathe on their own to ventilators; these deliver pressurized air into the lungs. They insert a tube into a patient's trachea, or windpipe; connect the tube to the ventilator; set and monitor the rate, volume, and oxygen concentration of the air entering and leaving the patient's lungs. Therapists then regularly monitor the patients and check the equipment for proper mechanical function. If the patient appears to be having difficulty or if the oxygen, carbon dioxide, or pH level of the blood is abnormal, they change the ventilator setting according to the patient’s needs and doctor's order.

In home care, nursing homes or extended care facilities, therapists teach patients and their families to use home care ventilators and other life support systems. They check on the patient, inspect and clean equipment and ensure its proper function. Emergency visits are made if problems arise.

Respiratory therapists perform chest physiotherapy on patient to remove mucus from their lungs to make it easier for them to breathe. For example, during surgery, anesthesia affects the patients respiration and airways, so this treatment may be prescribed to help get the patient's lungs back to normal and prevent congestion. Chest physiotherapy is done on patients suffering from lung diseases, such as cystic fibrosis bronchitis or pneumonia. Secretions collect in the lung and need removal. Therapists place patients in specific positions and perform procedures to help drain the secretions and instruct patients how to cough effectively.

Respiratory therapists administer aerosol medications. This is medicine that forms a mist to be inhaled. They train patients how to inhale the aerosol properly to assure its maximum effectiveness. There are many other specially areas therapist work in like hyperbaric and sleep medicine laboratories.

Therapists may have other duties including keeping records of the materials used and charges to patients, patient assessment and family education. Some therapists teach or supervise other respiratory care or medical personnel.

Working Conditions

Respiratory therapists generally work a 40-hour week. Because hospitals operate around the clock, therapists may work evenings, nights, or weekends. They must be able to spend long periods standing and walking between patients' rooms. In an emergency, they work under a great amount of stress. Gases used by respiratory therapists can be potentially hazardous because they are used and stored under pressure. Therapists learn safety precautions, maintenance and testing of equipment to minimize any risk of injury.

As with many health occupations respiratory therapists run a risk of catching infectious diseases. Careful adherence to proper procedures, like hand washing, minimizes the risk.