Respiratory therapists care for patients who have trouble breathing—for example, because of conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Their patients range from premature infants with undeveloped lungs to older adults whose lungs are diseased.
Respiratory therapists typically do the following:
- Interview and examine patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders
- Consult with physicians about patients’ conditions and developing treatment plans
- Perform diagnostic tests
- Treat patients using a variety of methods
- Monitor and record patients’ progress
- Teach patients how to take medications and use equipment
Respiratory therapists work closely with registered nurses, physicians and surgeons, and medical assistants. They use various tests to evaluate patients. For example, respiratory therapists administer pulmonary function tests to assess lung capacity by having patients breathe into an instrument that measures the volume and flow of oxygen when they inhale and exhale. Therapists also may take blood samples and use a blood gas analyzer to test oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
Respiratory therapists also perform treatment to clear airways for improved breathing. For example, therapists may do chest physiotherapy to remove mucus from the lungs by tapping the patient’s chest and encouraging him or her to cough.
Respiratory therapists in emergency settings may connect patients who cannot breathe on their own to ventilators that deliver oxygen to the lungs. They set up and monitor the equipment to ensure that the patient is receiving the correct amount of oxygen at the correct rate.
Respiratory therapists who work in home care teach patients and their families to use ventilators and other life-support systems. During these visits, they may inspect and clean equipment, check the home for environmental hazards, and ensure that patients know how to use their medications. Therapists also make emergency home visits when necessary.
In some medical facilities, respiratory therapists are involved in related areas, such as diagnosing breathing problems for people with sleep apnea and counseling people on how to stop smoking.