How to Become a Certified Respiratory Therapist

Learn how to become a respiratory therapist. Research job duties and education and licensing requirements to find out how to start a career in respiratory therapy.

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Do I Want to Be a Certified Respiratory Therapist?

Respiratory therapists test patients who demonstrate respiratory difficulties, consult with physicians to determine a treatment plan, carry out the treatment plan and track progress for the patient. Some respiratory therapists work in hospitals or nursing homes, while others travel to patients' homes to install and maintain respiratory equipment for at-home use. Standing for long periods of time might be required, in addition to turning or lifting patients. Respiratory therapists who work in medical facilities often work evenings and weekends.

Job Requirements

An associate's degree in respiratory therapy is sometimes sufficient, although some employers look for applicants with a bachelor's degree. Respiratory therapy is highly regulated; almost every state requires licensure for therapists. Certification is optional in some cases, but it's often a prerequisite for state licensure.

The following table lists the education, credentialing and skills necessary for beginning a career in respiratory therapy:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Associate's degree*
Degree Field Respiratory therapy*
Licensure and Certification Licensing is required in every state except Alaska. National certification is often a prerequisite for state licensure.* Many employers require additional life support certifications.**
Experience Hands-on experience is required in all training programs.*
Key Skills Communication skills, empathy, ability to interact with many types of people*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Job postings from CareerBuilder.com (September 2012).

Step 1: Earn an Associate's Degree

Many community and technical colleges offer associate's degree programs in respiratory therapy. Students may need to complete introductory college-level coursework in English, math, chemistry, anatomy and physiology before beginning a respiratory therapy program. Some programs also require that applicants demonstrate a commitment to the profession by showing documented volunteer or work experience hours in a respiratory healthcare setting.

Students should choose a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC) to ensure that all requirements for licensure and certification are met. Coursework in an associate's degree program introduces students to theories and science of respiratory therapy and teaches clinical techniques for use with adults, children and infants. Students complete clinical rotations in various specialty areas to learn how to properly put their skills to work in real-life situations.

Step 2: Complete the Examination to Become a Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT)

The National Board for Respiratory Care administers the computer-based CRT test daily through testing centers located across the country (www.nbrc.org). The organization offers a free online practice test to acquaint candidates with the format of the certification exam.

Step 3: Obtain a State License

Every state except Alaska regulates licensure for respiratory therapists. Many states require that professionals pass the NBRC exam and be certified as CRTs to qualify for state licensure. Some states require a higher level of certification, such as Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT).

Step 4: Consider Obtaining Additional Certification

Many employers prefer or require respiratory therapists to have additional life support certifications. Respiratory therapists who want to work with children or infants should consider getting Pediatric Advanced Life Support certification and completing a Neonatal Resuscitation Program. All respiratory therapists should also consider earning Basic Life Support and Advanced Cardiac Life Support certifications.

Step 5: Keep Up with Continuing Education Requirements and Certification and License Renewal

The NBRC requires CRTs to renew their credentials every five years through continuing education or retesting. CRTs must also maintain their active status annually by submitting a document verifying that they are actively practicing respiratory therapy. Additionally, some states require continuing education to keep licensure active. Life support certifications must also be kept active through a recertification process.

Step 6: Consider Advanced Certification

Professionals holding the CRT credential can become RRTs. The RRT credential is required for some jobs and could help a therapist become a more competitive employment candidate. Candidates must pass written and clinical examinations to earn the RRT designation. Depending on a candidate's particular situation, he or she may be required to earn both the CRT and RRT designations within three years of graduating from a respiratory therapy program.

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