The respiratory therapist (RT) profession was relatively unknown before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. With a respiratory virus, RTs quickly became heroes behind the scenes and often on the front lines with nurses during the pandemic. In addition, they helped implement solutions for better patient oxygenation, such as proning, which involves keeping the patient on their stomach. RTs stretched already thin resources to create new ones, keeping patients off mechanical ventilation through alternative strategies.
Post pandemic, however, healthcare professionals will need to re-examine all disciplines — including respiratory therapy — to account for lessons learned and focus on furthering education to meet tomorrow's healthcare challenges.
What Is the Demand for RTs?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), RTs will see a faster-than-average job growth rate (19%) over the next decade. This demand is due to retiring RTs and an aging patient population. With age, more pulmonary and chronic complications arise. Most RT positions are hospital-based, but with the shift in care to lower costs, more RT positions are in non-traditional roles.
In addition, healthcare is beginning to direct more focus to population health. More air pollution, wildfires and respiratory viruses create the need for prevention and early detection. Plus, the long-term cardiopulmonary consequences of COVID-19 remain unknown.
A 2021 study found that 27% of recovered COVID-19 patients "reported persistent symptoms 60 days after the acute phase of the disease had resolved," and many of the symptoms were related to the lungs. As a result, patients will rely on RTs to help assess risk, educate, advocate, manage and evaluate their ongoing care in a variety of settings.
Why Get a Bachelor's Degree in RT?
The American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC) challenges RTs to obtain a bachelor of science degree to prepare themselves for a more significant role in healthcare. In 2015 AARC called for 80% of RTs to either have, or be working toward, a B.S. degree by 2020. Although RTs can practice with an associate degree and certification, a B.S. can help you:
- Build skills. Therapists with knowledge in evidence-based practice, shared decision-making and outcomes measurements improve an organization's overall patient care. Having a B.S. "allows respiratory therapists to take on additional and more complex roles," said Brian Walsh PhD, RRT, FAARC, former president of AARC.
- Open opportunities. More education can expand career options such as supervisor/manager or leadership roles. In addition, some healthcare systems use a clinical ladder program for RTs — such as RT1 and RT2 positions with more responsibility and compensation for a higher-level practitioner.
- Secure employment. Employers often prefer BS-prepared RTs. Due to the shift in complex care delivery, RT roles in telehealth, case management or outpatient care may require more education and training.
- Continue schooling. Depending on your career goals, you may want to continue your education with a master's degree in RT. Earning your B.S. would bring you another step closer to a master's degree.
RTs with a B.S. also tend to earn more and "are more likely to have the RRT [registered respiratory therapist] credential, have more advanced credentials — RRT-NPS, RRT-ACCS, etc." that allow them to take on more responsibility, said Brian Walsh, former president of the AARC.
What Is the Future of the Respiratory Therapy Profession?
The role of hospital-based RT is evolving as patient care is moving from expensive inpatient care to more acute outpatient, skilled-care or home care. RTs may be expanding their responsibilities, such as handling all inpatient ECGs or managing an outpatient respiratory clinic (asthma and COPD, for example). In addition, their scope of practice may evolve to include more patient teaching, discharge education, case management and long-term care planning.
"We're potentially entering a golden age for our profession if we continue to position ourselves to be ready for it," said Michael Hess, senior director of public outreach and education at the COPD Foundation, in Post-COVID Care: What Role Will the RT Play?
RTs must have more in-depth knowledge with a better understanding of patient care to be prepared for a future of widespread respiratory complications.
Why Choose an Online Bachelor's Program?
An online-only program format allows working registered respiratory therapists (RRTs) to earn a B.S. in as few as 12 months. Therapists with an associate degree can earn their Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Therapy through the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) Respiratory Therapy Degree Advancement (RRT-BSRT) program. The flexible nature of UNCW's online program means RRTs can keep working while they complete the courses to earn their bachelor's degree.
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