There are many areas of practice open to people who want to work in respiratory therapy. Patient ages range from the very young to the very old, and a qualified therapist can not only choose which age group to work with, but what type of respiratory illness to focus on, and even decide which setting to practice in — hospital, home or emergency care.
Below are six common areas of practice for respiratory therapists and a short description of each specialty and how they differ from one another.
Pediatric respiratory therapists treat children from toddlers to adolescents, but therapists focusing on infants can work in children’s and general hospitals equipped with neonatal-pediatric wards. The neonatal therapist treats and monitors premature newborns, as well as, infants born with pulmonary diseases or disorders. A neonatal respiratory therapist might track the breathing of a baby suspected to have a breathing disorder or deal with emergencies in the case of infant respiratory distress.
Because of aging baby boomers, the number of jobs for gerontological respiratory therapists is expected to grow 12% between 2014 and 2024, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). A gerontological respiratory therapist treats and monitors elderly patients with illnesses such as emphysema, COPD and pneumonia in hospitals, nursing homes and home care. Gerontological therapists who like to be independent, mobile and deal one-on-one with patients tend to thrive at home care and work for private companies that provide home care respiratory equipment, rather than in hospitals.
Respiratory therapists who like a fast-paced, challenging atmosphere can work in the intensive care unit, where they have access to the most advanced medical equipment and treat the sickest patients. Critical care respiratory therapists need to obtain the advanced-level RRT credential before entering the ICU. Critically ill ventilation patients are more susceptible to ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP), making it vitally important that they be treated by a diligent respiratory therapist who can closely monitor their condition.
Pulmonary Rehab and Cardiorespiratory
Patients with ongoing respiratory illnesses like COPD, pulmonary fibrosis, emphysema, asthma and chronic bronchitis are treated by pulmonary rehabilitation therapists. Their main focus is on providing treatment, exercise and education to help patients manage their chronic conditions, and their scope can overlap with cardiorespiratory therapists, who work with patients who have had heart attacks, congenital heart disorders or other cardiac conditions that affect the lungs. Both types of therapist work in hospitals, nursing homes or skilled nursing centers, and must keep current with therapeutic medical equipment such as ventilators, life-support devices and diagnostic kits. In some circumstances, they may be called on to perform emergency resuscitation.
Diagnostic respiratory therapists specialize in pulmonary function testing, and tend to enjoy the diagnostic aspects of respiratory care, rather than visiting with patients. These therapists work out of pulmonary function laboratories in hospitals or doctor’s offices, and help physicians diagnose a patient’s condition by performing the necessary testing.
Respiratory therapists who choose to focus on diagnosing and treating sleep disorders — known as polysomnography — require additional education and training beyond general certification to understand the 77 unique disorders and medical equipment involved. Respiratory therapists who practice in polysomnography normally work during the night shift, utilizing sleep medicine technologies to observe and analyze a patient’s sleep patterns, helping to achieve diagnosis.
The first step toward career advancement in a leadership role in any of these respiratory therapy specialties is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Therapy from a reputable institution.