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The Role of Respiratory Therapists in Healthcare


The COVID-19 pandemic catapulted respiratory therapists (RTs) — previously unsung stars in the care continuum — into the limelight. It has served as a reminder about the essential role RTs fulfill, especially related to the care and recovery of critically ill patients, from newborns to the elderly.

A Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Care online program from Northern Kentucky University (NKU) can equip healthcare professionals with the respiratory health knowledge and advanced clinical practice skills for a career in this crucial field.

How Has the Pandemic Impacted Respiratory Therapists?

RTs do much more than administer breathing treatments, and their unique skill sets have been called upon repeatedly since the pandemic's start. Physicians and other healthcare providers rely on the expertise of RTs to manage and treat breathing disorders, including monitoring complex ventilation settings. The American Association of Respiratory Care (AARC) noted that "the respiratory therapist is the only healthcare clinician didactically and clinically educated and trained in the art and science of mechanical ventilation." 

Leading up to each surge, RTs have conducted rapid training sessions to ensure that other healthcare professionals understand ventilation basics and safe prone positioning protocols. RTs have routinely worked with hospital incident command to plan for influxes of acutely ill patients, and they have assisted in expanding intensive care units and inpatient capacities.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, RTs have also been responsible for:  

  • Performing tests and evaluations to assess patients' breathing patterns, lung capacities and oxygenation levels
  • Managing patients' airways, including monitoring ventilator settings
  • Administering medications and oxygen treatments
  • Managing inventory and supplies — such as ventilators, humidifiers and high flow nasal cannula devices — and sourcing them from the national stockpile
  • Creating treatment plans, keeping in mind the patient's goals, limitations and the emerging evidence as the understanding of COVID-19 evolved
  • Collaborating with physicians and other healthcare professionals
  • Educating patients and caretakers on the use of medications, treatments and disease progression

Is There a Growing Demand for Respiratory Therapists?

Demand for RTs, especially those with advanced education and experience, was strong even before the pandemic. According to the American Lung Association, an estimated 37 million Americans had chronic lung diseases such as asthma or COPD, as of April 2020. With an aging population and those now dealing with post-COVID respiratory issues, demand for qualified RTs has risen significantly. As a result, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates a much-faster-than-average job growth rate for RTs in the coming decade — 23% growth through 2030 with more than 10K job openings per year.

Can RTs Benefit from Earning a B.S. in Respiratory Care?

Like nurses, respiratory therapists can quickly gain experience and begin their professional practice after completing a two-year associate degree. However, like nursing, pursuing a bachelor's degree is advantageous. The AARC says earning a bachelor's degree should be a "top career goal" for today's RTs since they are navigating more complex patient care and assuming critical leadership and decision-making roles as their peers retire. AARC has established a goal for 80% of respiratory therapists to complete or be working toward a bachelor's degree by 2020. While they've not yet reached the goal, it signals a shift in recommended minimum educational requirements and highlights how a bachelor's degree is becoming the industry standard.

However, going back to school can be challenging with work schedules and family commitments. Northern Kentucky University (NKU) offers a Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Care online program. It is ideal for Registered Respiratory Therapists (RRTs) with an associate degree in respiratory care who want to advance their credentials, skills and earning potential. The convenient and flexible format allows them to keep working while completing the program, and many healthcare employers have tuition reimbursement programs to encourage students to pursue further education.  

Before the pandemic, respiratory therapists were vital in treating lung and breathing disorders. Now, respiratory therapy remains a top in-demand allied health career, even more so for RRTs who continue to grow their skills and keep up with industry trends.  

Learn more about NKU's B.S. in Respiratory Care online program.


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