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Job Opportunities for Respiratory Therapists

As COVID-19 swept across the globe, respiratory therapists (RTs) stepped into the spotlight. These professionals were thrust into critical care situations and called upon to navigate complicated cases.

Even though COVID-19 infection rates are on the downslide, the need for skilled therapists has not diminished. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a much-faster-than-average job growth through 2030 for the RT occupational category — with a projected growth of 23% by 2030.

Why Are RTs in Such Demand?

COVID-19 infection rates may be lower, but the need for care remains. Many patients deal with a collection of symptoms known as “long-haul COVID.” Data reveals that this phenomenon is estimated to impact 14-30% of people who contracted the virus. However, researchers are still trying to untangle the different variants’ effects.

Simply because a COVID-19 variant, like that one called omicron, may not be as severe, it does not mean long-haul COVID is off the table. Long-term symptoms can even develop in asymptomatic cases. The pervasiveness of the pandemic added incredible strain on the RT pool. Even as the omicron variant “wave” passes in certain areas around the U.S., hospitals are still suffering from the broader pandemic effects.

“The omicron variant has dramatically increased the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19. Even though many of these patients are in the hospital with COVID rather than because of COVID, their positive test increases the chances that a respiratory therapist or additional support will be needed, further stressing healthcare workers,” warns Will Maddox, editor of CEO Healthcare editor of D Magazine — a publication that serves Dallas and its surrounding areas.

To further emphasize the need to RTs, consider the fact that individuals with pre-existing chronic lung conditions — such as emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)or asthma — may have a long road ahead. Chronic lung conditions such as these have been on the rise due to air pollution, smoking habits and an increase in overweight/obesity rates.

How Will RTs Serve in a Post-COVID Capacity?

Michael Hess, MPH, RRT, RPFT, Senior Director of Public Outreach and Education at the COPD Foundation, foresees RTs serving in a dual capacity — regardless of COVID-19 pandemic status.

1) Diagnostics. Historically, certain facilities had limited access to adequate pulmonary diagnostics. However, new solutions are now making pulmonary function testing available in venues like clinics, primary care practices and even the bedside.

“It will be important for diagnostic RTs to be aggressive advocates so we can get high-quality testing data to develop effective plans of care,” states Hess.

2) Post-Acute Care. There’s been increased discussion surrounding the “oxygen infrastructure” and the fear that oxygen supply could continue to be in shortage. The Rheumatologist, a publication serving rheumatology professionals, recently revealed that hospitals in Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana and Texas all reported oxygen as a “scarce resource” as recently as August 2021.

To mitigate newly identified challenges in a post-COVID-19 era, communities around the nation are witnessing a rise in specialized COVID rehabilitation programs. Hess says this is a much-needed approach, “providing an opportunity for our skilled pulmonary rehab RTs to bring their expertise to bear on this burgeoning problem.” Respiratory therapists are still mostly employed by hospitals to treat patients with cardiopulmonary disorders.

Path to an RT Career

While employers hire individuals as RTs with only an associate degree, many prefer candidates with a Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Care. This trend is likely to continue as advanced education degrees are becoming more an expectation rather than the exception across all healthcare specialties.

Fortunately, online degree programs allow for a smoother transition for RTs looking to level up their degree status. For example, the online program at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) is a convenient, affordable option. With multiple start dates per calendar year and pay-by-course tuition, RTs gain enough flexibility to continue working throughout the program’s duration.

Most importantly, the coursework presented by NKU’s online program fully prepares RTs to thrive in the COVID-19 era and beyond. The program is designed for the working respiratory care professional. It provides an opportunity for practitioners to advance their degree while continuing to work. One course that will be especially important as experts learn more about long-haul COVID’s effects is Case Studies in Evidence Based Practice.

Students review healthcare delivery to chronically ill patients with lung and heart disorders, emphasizing respiratory care. These reviews utilize a multidisciplinary approach to case management and unique responsibilities of respiratory therapists.

Additionally, the Advanced Critical Care course covers critical care skills that RTs can apply to COVID-19 or any future manifestation of the virus, such as:

  • advanced mechanical ventilation
  • invasive and noninvasive airway management
  • waveform analysis and application
  • critical care procedures and diagnostics
  • medical critical care issues
  • traumatic critical care issues

A Promising Future in RT Awaits

COVID-19 will continue to affect local, national and global populations. While experts understand the virus more now, there’s still much to discover. What is known is that the field of respiratory care holds great opportunities for current RTs and individuals looking to get into this specialty.

Learn more about Northern Kentucky University’s online Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Care program.

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