Respiratory therapist

Health Sciences

What Do Respiratory Therapists Do? A Closer Look



Jobs for respiratory therapists are growing much faster than average. Learn more about the important role these specialists play in the healthcare system.

Anyone interested in working in the healthcare field knows there are many professional paths one could pursue. In researching the options, you may have come across the role of a respiratory therapist. 

With jobs in this field projected to grow much faster than average in the coming years, it’s certainly a position worth considering. But what do respiratory therapists do, exactly?

We’re here to provide a behind-the-scenes look at this rewarding role so you can determine if it’s the right healthcare career for you.


What is a respiratory therapist?

Respiratory therapists (RTs) are health practitioners who specialize in treating people of all ages suffering from sudden or chronic breathing problems. They use a variety of tests, equipment and procedures to evaluate and treat patients based on their unique respiratory conditions.

Common conditions treated by respiratory therapists:

  • Asthma
  • Lung cancer
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Emphysema
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Cardiac failure
  • Chest trauma

Most respiratory therapists are employed in hospital settings, but some work in nursing homes or physicians’ offices. Within these environments, they provide care for patients of all ages. Daily duties will vary based on the types of patients they treat, but there are some responsibilities that most RTs share.

Common respiratory therapist duties:

  • Interviewing and examining patients with cardiopulmonary and breathing conditions
  • Performing diagnostic tests to measure lung capacity, detect asthma, etc.
  • Consulting with physicians to develop treatment plans
  • Administering treatments such as nebulizers, ventilators and pulmonary rehabilitation
  • Educating patients and family members on proper use of medications and equipment
  • Monitoring and recording patient progress

While these basic duties apply to most RT positions, there are some unique roles based on the population they’re serving.


What do respiratory therapists do in pediatric hospitals?

Within seconds of being born, a baby takes its first breath. Many newborns are unable to take these initial breaths on their own, often due to premature birth, maternal complications, or growth abnormalities. Respiratory therapists are there for the smallest patients by placing breathing tubes, providing mechanical breaths and managing breathing machines until the babies can breathe on their own. This process starts in the delivery room, when a RT assists in stabilizing newborns unable to transition in their first few moments of life. 

Pediatric patients from birth through age 18 will be cared for at a pediatric hospital. The respiratory team plays an integral role in the care of hospitalized children in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), pediatric intensive care unit (PICU), emergency room (ER) and regular (medical/surgical) areas. 

Children with chronic breathing disorders, such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, congenital heart malformations and premature lungs receive daily care from RTs. They provide breathing treatments, airway clearance therapy, life-saving resuscitation and education for patients’ families. 

Children with acute, or short-term breathing issues, such as croup, pneumonia, flu and bronchiolitis will also receive assessment, breathing treatments, suctioning, and additional therapies from respiratory therapists. For the sickest pediatric patients, respiratory therapists are responsible for managing breathing tubes, breathing machines and heart-lung bypass machines.


What do respiratory therapists do in adult hospitals?

Most adults receiving care from respiratory therapists in the hospital suffer from chronic pulmonary disorders, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, emphysema and bronchiectasis. Following a thorough assessment, RTs will determine appropriate care, which may include lung expansion exercises, airway clearance interventions and inhaled medication treatments. 

For patients who are very ill, often in the intensive care unit (ICU), respiratory therapists place breathing tubes and manage breathing machines. It is the RT’s responsibility to ensure the breathing machine is working as closely to the patient’s neural drive to breathe as possible. They conduct daily evaluations of the patient’s readiness to breathe on their own and will remove the breathing tube when they determine it’s appropriate.


How do you become a respiratory therapist?

The requirements for licensure as a respiratory therapist vary across the United States. Currently, all states allow RTs to have a bachelor’s or associate degree in respiratory care. The American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC) has been advocating for the industry to work toward 80 percent of all RTs to have a bachelor’s degree, but state laws do not yet require this change. 

Leadership positions, as well as roles outside of the hospital, will require a bachelor’s degree or higher. The bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy at Bellarmine University prepares graduates with demonstrated competence in the cognitive (knowledge), psychomotor (skills) and affective (behavior) learning domains of respiratory care practice. 

Sample of respiratory therapy courses:

  • Respiratory Therapy Science
  • Cardiopulmonary Disease Management
  • Neonatal/Pediatric Respiratory Care
  • Advanced Life Support and Emergency Care
  • Respiratory Therapy Leadership

As a respiratory therapist, you are eligible for a multitude of specialty credentialing exams based on your specialized patient population. The National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) is the main certifying body for RTs, offering two valued credentials: Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) and Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT).


Start your respiratory therapy training

Now you’re aware of what respiratory therapists do and the important role they play in the health system. If you’re interested in helping meet the current demand for RTs, it’s time to find a program that can provide the specialized training you need.

The Bellarmine University respiratory therapy program was ranked #1 in the United States by CollegeChoice. With our engaged faculty, credentialing exam pass rates and successful graduate outcomes, Bellarmine University is well-equipped to prepare you for a promising career in respiratory therapy. 

Learn more about the internationally recognized program by visiting our program page. If you have specific questions about the RT program, job shadowing, scholarships or admissions requirements, please contact the Bellarmine University Respiratory Therapy program chair, Dr. Christy Kane at

Tags: Health Sciences , Respiratory Therapy



Located in the historic Highlands neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky, Bellarmine University is a vibrant community of educational excellence and ethical awareness that consistently ranks among the nation’s best colleges and universities. Our students pursue an education based in the liberal arts – and in the distinguished, inclusive Catholic tradition of educational excellence, the oldest and most rewarding in the western world. It is a lifelong education, worthy of the university’s namesake, Saint Robert Bellarmine, and of his invitation to each of us to learn and live In Veritatis Amore – in the love of all that is beautiful, true and good in life.