what is a respiratory therapist?

You may have never heard of a respiratory therapist. This is not surprising, as respiratory therapy as we know it today is a very young medical discipline, having only existed for approximately 60 years. The first certifications and official associations were formed approximately 1946. As technology expanded, so did the role of the prior “oxygen jockey”. Intermittent positive-pressure breathing (IPPB) treatment machines, the “iron lung”, the proliferation of pulmonary function testing (PFT) and expanding care of the very premature infant gradually added more and more roles to the scope of the RT’s practice. RTs filled the need for thoroughly trained clinical practitioners skilled in a multitude of disciplines. Gradually, the title expanded from “inhalation therapist” to “respiratory technologist” to today’s “respiratory therapist.”

Today, respiratory therapists are found in intensive care units (where they operate the mechanical ventilator or “life support” machine,) emergency rooms, transport teams, operating rooms, sleep diagnostic laboratories, pulmonary function laboratories, cardiac catheterization laboratories, as well as other areas in the hospital setting. Respiratory therapists in the community can also be found providing in-home oxygen services for clients and as strong educators in pulmonary and cardiac rehabilitation programs.

We are indispensable members of the “code” teams. We possess clinical skills like intubation and inserting arterial lines, as well as technical skills such as troubleshooting and repairing high-pressure and working-pressure gas systems.

Respiratory therapists in conversation are called “RTs”. We work in every place in a hospital to some degree. We teach, we test, we rehabilitate and we save lives. We treat everyone from newborn to the last days of their lives.

We work under the direction of a physician, but that direction more often than not can be “do what you do best.” We are critical thinkers, used to being the cowboy on a team of other players. We are passionate about our work, and we are great at what we do.


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