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What Is a Respiratory Therapist?

You might be wondering “What is a respiratory therapist?” or “What does a respiratory therapist do?” To help you understand we will explore some clinical scenarios and cover some respiratory terminology and diagnostic and therapeutic respiratory medical equipment. To begin, I’ll tell you that a respiratory therapist will work in many different clinical settings, caring for patients of all ages. You are not only a clinician, but also an educator. You function with a great deal of independence but always under the direction of a physician.

As a respiratory therapist in an acute care hospital setting, you care for patients who may be in marked respiratory distress and in urgent need of breathing treatments and diagnostic testing.  They may even need to be treated acutely and placed on a mechanical ventilator to manage their respiratory failure. As a respiratory therapist you assist with this process every step of the way.  You will administer medical gases and aerosolized medications. You will draw arterial blood gases (ABG’s) to help diagnose and optimally treat patients. As the respiratory therapist you communicate therapeutically with nurses and physicians and participate as part of the caregiver team. You make recommendations to the evaluating physician. You also work in a blood gas laboratory to analyze arterial blood to determine optimal treatment for your patients.

As a respiratory therapist in an acute rehabilitation hospital setting, a patient may be admitted who still has and artificial airway and continues to breathe on a mechanical ventilator. As a respiratory therapist, it is a major part of your job responsibility to monitor the patient’s progress and communicate with the healthcare team and physician.  By using diagnostic tools and planning with the physician, this patient may be weaned off the ventilator and begin their pulmonary rehabilitation with you, the respiratory therapist. The patient will also receive services from physical and occupational therapy.

In a skilled nursing facility respiratory therapists care for patients that are well enough to leave the hospital but are not well enough to return home to care for themselves. These patients also receive multidisciplinary therapy and increase their endurance and exercise tolerance while receiving in depth education about their respiratory disease. As a respiratory therapist you educate them about their medications and all of their therapy and respiratory equipment. This will include teaching them breathing exercises and energy conservation so that they may still have a good quality of life despite their pulmonary disease.

As a respiratory therapist you may also work in patient’s homes to educate them on how to safely care for themselves independently. This includes oxygen safety and managing all of their respiratory medications and equipment.

In the physician’s office the respiratory therapist will assist the doctor with assessments, education and encouragement for the chronically ill and also helping the healthy stay well.

In a college setting you would be a respiratory classroom instructor or a clinical instructor who educates future aspiring respiratory therapists.

As you can see, a respiratory therapist has many vital responsibilities. You may work a staff respiratory therapist or may pursue a management position. Through years of clinical experience you will sharpen your clinical skills and become an valuable member of a respiratory department.