RESPIRATORY CARE

Respiratory care is a matter of life and breath. A person can live without food for a week, without water for a day, but for only a few minutes without air. For survival, breathing is a person’s most important need. Respiratory therapists work to ensure that the need to breathe is met.

The role of respiratory therapists can be briefly described as evaluating, treating, and caring for patients with breathing disorders. They treat patients of all ages, ranging from premature babies to the elderly. Among those served are accident victims or patients suffering from asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, cystic fibrosis, chest or heart trauma, pneumonia, lung disease, and neuromuscular disorders. Their work is done under the direction of a physician.

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DIAGNOSTIC ROLE OF THE RESPIRATORY THERAPIST  
TREATMENT ROLE OF THE RESPIRATORY THERAPIST  
PERSONALITY TRAITS & INTERESTS REQUIRED  
WORK ENVIRONMENT  
CAREER OUTLOOK  

DIAGNOSTIC ROLE OF THE RESPIRATORY THERAPISTJust Breathe

In their evaluation or diagnostic role, respiratory therapists first interview patients, analyzing and compiling such factors as occupational history, if they have or currently smoke cigarettes, signs of breathlessness and wheezing, chest illnesses, and their cough and sputum. Therapists also assess general appearance, vital signs, learning needs, and physical, social, and nutritional status. Then respiratory therapists measure the capacity of the lungs to determine if there is impaired function. They draw blood for analysis of the levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other gases - the finding of which are necessary to assess the best course of treatment for the patient. They also perform pulmonary function tests, and other studies of the cardiopulmonary system.

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TREATMENT ROLE OF THE RESPIRATORY THERAPIST

In their treatment role, respiratory therapists provide therapy designed to help patients recover their lung function. The American Association for Respiratory Care describes the therapist’s responsibilities as follows:

  1. Operating and maintaining various types of highly sophisticated equipment to administer oxygen or to assist with breathing
  2. Employing mechanical ventilation for treating patients who cannot breathe adequately on their own
  3. Monitoring and managing therapy to help a patient recover lung function
  4. Administering medications in aerosol form to help alleviate breathing problems and prevent respiratory infections
  5. Conducting rehabilitation activities, such as low-impact aerobic exercise classes, to help patients who suffer from chronic lung problems
  6. Maintaining a patient’s artificial airway that may be in place to help the patient who cannot breathe through normal means
  7. Conducting smoking cessation programs for hospital patients and others in the community who want to kick the tobacco habit

Respiratory therapists participate in sleep studies, administer oxygen and other medications, manage mucus and other secretions, care for airways, provide pulmonary rehabilitation, and maintain and operate mechanical ventilation and life-support systems.

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PERSONALITY TRAITS & INTERESTS REQUIRED

Strong interpersonal skills are a must for respiratory therapists. They must be sensitive to the needs of patients who have serious physical impairments as they ask patients to perform painful tasks, such as coughing to clear the airways after heart surgery. An aptitude for science is critical as respiratory therapy educational programs begin with such courses as biology and anatomy. Respiratory therapists work as members of a healthcare team and must be able to communicate well with team members as well as with patients and their families. Mechanical ability is needed since much of the therapist’s work centers on high-tech machinery. Mathematical ability is also needed as therapists work with gas concentrations and compute medication dosages.

WORK ENVIRONMENT

Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals, which operate around the clock with day, evening, night, and weekend shifts. Career opportunities also exist in diagnostic laboratories, rehabilitation and skilled nursing facilities, physician offices, convalescent and retirement centers, private homes, patient transport services, medical supply and other industries, and educational institutions including colleges and universities. Respiratory therapists are members of emergency flight and other transport teams that respond to accidents and other emergency situations. Emergency care is fast-paced and requires good stress-management skills. Gases used by therapists can be potentially hazardous and require strict adherence to safety precautions as well as regular maintenance and testing of equipment to minimize the risk of injury.

CAREER OUTLOOK

Approximately 106,000 respiratory therapists were employed in the United States in 2008. About 81% of jobs were in hospitals, mainly in departments of respiratory care, anesthesiology, or pulmonary medicine. Most of the remaining jobs were in offices of physicians or other health practitioners, consumer-goods rental firms that supply respiratory equipment for home use, nursing care facilities, employment services, and home healthcare services.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor lists respiratory care as among the fastest growing professions with a projected 21% increase in demand from 2008 to 2018. Job prospects are projected to be especially good for respiratory care professionals with a bachelor’s degree and certification and those with cardiopulmonary care skills or experience working with infants. The vast majority of job openings will continue to be in hospitals.

The increasing demand will come from substantial growth in the middle-aged and elderly population—a development that will heighten the incidence of cardiopulmonary disease. Growth in demand also will result from the expanding role of respiratory therapists in case management, disease prevention, and emergency care.

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