The Bellarmine Blog

A healthcare professional showing patient how to use a respiratory device.

Respiratory Therapist vs. Nurse: Diagnosing the Differences

Even if you’ve had your sights set on working in healthcare for some time, narrowing down the precise path you want to take can be difficult. That’s because there are so many different types of medical professionals who work to make a difference in the lives of their patients, day in and day out.  

Respiratory therapists and nurses are both vital members of the healthcare team. These respected professionals place an emphasis on providing the best possible care for their patients. And while professionals in these two fields study many of the same subjects and can work closely together in healthcare settings, they have completely different jobs (and different job requirements).  

See if you can discover the healthcare career you’ve been seeking as we diagnose the differences between a respiratory therapist and a nurse. 

Respiratory therapist vs. nurse: What to expect on the job 

The first step in determining which healthcare career path to pursue is to familiarize yourself with the daily duties of each. Keep reading to get a sneak peek at each position. 

What does a respiratory therapist do? 

Respiratory therapists care for patients who have trouble breathing. Their patients can range in age from infants with underdeveloped lungs to elderly patients with lung disease. In addition to working with patients who may be battling things like asthma, emphysema, or a respiratory virus, these healthcare professionals can also provide emergency care to those suffering from heart attacks, drowning, or shock.  

Specific duties a respiratory therapist will encounter on the job include:  

  • Examining patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders 

  • Consulting with doctors to develop patient treatment plans 

  • Performing diagnostic tests, such as measuring lung capacity 

  • Treating patients by using a variety of methods, such as chest physiotherapy 

  • Teaching patients how to properly take medications and use equipment 

  • Monitoring and recording patient progress 

Respiratory therapists most commonly work in hospitals, but some also work in home care, teaching patients and their families to use ventilators and other life-support systems in their homes. These healthcare professionals earn a median annual salary of $61,330, and the field is expected to see rapid growth, with job openings expanding by 21 percent through 2028.  

What does a nurse do? 

Registered nurses (RNs) provide and coordinate patient care, educate patients and the public about various health conditions, and provide emotional support to patients and their families. Their specific duties will vary depending on where they work and the patients they work with – after all, there are more than 100 nursing specializations to consider.  

That said, there are a number of things most RNs can expect to do on the job:  

  • Assessing patients’ conditions and recording medical histories, symptoms, and observations 

  • Consulting and collaborating with physicians and other healthcare professionals to create treatment plans 

  • Administering patients’ medicines and treatments 

  • Operating and monitoring medical equipment 

  • Helping perform diagnostic tests and analyzing the results 

  • Teaching patients and their families how to manage illnesses or injuries 

Nurses work as part of a team with doctors and other healthcare specialists. Some RNs may also oversee licensed practical nurses (LPNs), certified nursing assistants (CNAs), and home health aides.  

These respected healthcare professionals typically work in hospitals, physicians’ offices, outpatient care centers, and in-home care. RNs bring in a median annual salary of $73,300, and positions in the field are expected to grow by 12 percent through 2028.  

Respiratory therapist vs. nurse: What you’ll need to succeed 

Now that you have a better understanding of the differences between a respiratory therapist and a nurse, you’re probably curious about the path to pursuing each profession. Here’s a closer look at the training and education you’ll need. 

How to become a respiratory therapist 

To begin working as a respiratory therapist, you’ll need at least an associate degree in the field. But many employers prefer candidates with a bachelor’s degree in Respiratory Therapy. These programs typically include courses in anatomy, physiology, chemistry, physics, microbiology, pharmacology, and math. In addition to coursework, respiratory therapy programs have clinical components that allow students to gain practical experience in treating patients. 

On top of earning a degree in the field, all states (with the exception of Alaska) require respiratory therapists to become licensed. The National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) is the main certifying body.  

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the most effective respiratory therapists are candidates who are compassionate, patient, and detail-oriented – and who have strong interpersonal and problem-solving abilities. Proficiency in math and science is also helpful in this profession.  

How to become a nurse 

To become qualified to work as an RN, you can take one of two educational paths: a bachelor’s degree in nursing or an associate degree in nursing. It should be noted, however, that the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) has long been preferred by many in the industry – including the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) – as the minimal preparation for professional nurses. 

In addition to traditional BSN programs, you may also come across RN-to-BSN programs for licensed RNs who are looking to upskill by pursuing their bachelor’s degrees. There are also accelerated BSN programs that are designed specifically for RN hopefuls who have already earned their bachelor’s degree in a different field.  

Like respiratory therapy programs, RN programs typically include coursework in anatomy, physiology, and microbiology. But nursing students will also have to take courses in liberal arts, psychology, and other behavioral sciences. All RNs must be licensed in the state in which they work. Licensure is obtained by passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).  

According to the BLS, the most successful nurses are candidates who excel in critical thinking communication, and compassion. They should also have strong attention to detail, organizational skills, and physical stamina.  

Move closer to your calling in healthcare 

As you seek a fulfilling career that puts you on the frontlines of our healthcare facilities, caring for patients and making a difference in the lives of others, you could find what you’re looking for as either a respiratory therapist or a nurse. Now that you know more about what you can expect from each of these paths, a helpful next step is to learn about what you can look forward to in a degree program.  

Bellarmine University has you covered. If you’re drawn toward the idea of becoming a respiratory therapist, you can learn more about your options by visiting Bellarmine’s Respiratory Therapy department page. To see what’s in store for you as a nursing student, head over to the Nursing department page.  

About Bellarmine University

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.