If you are interested in becoming a respiratory therapist in California, this article will guide you through the various steps, starting with enrolling in a training program, obtaining certification, and obtaining licensure from the state of California.  You will also learn about the duties of a respiratory therapist as well as salary and employment outlook.

Job Description

The main responsibilities of respiratory therapists are to evaluate, treat, and care for patients who are experiencing breathing difficulty or those with cardiopulmonary disease. Respiratory therapists work under the supervision of a physician yet maintain complete responsibility for respiratory procedures and treatments.  They are able to make independent judgment on behalf of patients on life support, as well as work collaboratively with physicians and other health care providers in developing patient care plans.

Patients are found in all age groups, from infants with under-developed lungs to the elderly with heart disease. Respiratory therapists also work with those who have suffered a stroke, or who have chronic asthma or emphysema.

Specific responsibilities of respiratory therapists include:

  • Taking case histories by interviewing patients and their families.
  • Performing diagnostic tests, such as evaluating a patient lung capacity or measuring pH level.
  • Treating patients by providing oxygen or oxygen mixtures, performing chest physiotherapy, positioning patients to assist them in discharging mucus from their lungs, as well as administering aerosol-based medications.
  • Periodic monitoring of respiratory equipment to ensure proper functioning.
  • Respiratory therapists who provide in-home care educate patients and their families in how to use ventilators, oxygen tanks, nebulizers, and other equipment. They also visit the home to inspect and maintain all equipment, assess the home environment in terms of any needed modifications, and ensure that sufficient quantities of needed medications are on hand. They may also make emergency home visits as the need arises.

Working Conditions

According the Occupational Outlook Handbook 2010-2011 edition, respiratory therapists held about 106,000 jobs in 2008. Approximately 81 percent of jobs are within hospital settings such as respiratory departments, anesthesiology, and pulmonary care. Most of the remaining employment opportunities can be found within private physician offices, medical equipment companies that supply respiratory equipment for in-home use, nursing homes, and home health agencies.

Respiratory therapists traditionally work a 35-40 hour work week, including evenings and weekends since most hospitals are in open around-the-clock.  Physical stamina is important as respiratory therapists spend long hours on their feet evaluating and treating patients, as well as making hospital rounds to visit patients in their rooms.

Because they work with gases that have been stored under pressure, respiratory therapists must abide by safety precautions and perform regular monitoring and maintenance of all equipment. As with most other health profession, respiratory therapists are exposed to infectious agents but by careful adherence to proper procedures, they are able to reduce their risk of infection.

Education Requirements

The minimum educational requirement to become a respiratory therapist is an associate’s degree, although a bachelor’s degree is preferred. A master’s degree could be important in order to be eligible for promotional opportunities.  Coursework will include human anatomy and physiology, chemistry, pharmacology, and mathematics.  Most training programs offer a clinical component in which students will have the opportunity to work in hospital or physician office settings to obtain real-world experience.

According to Rae Woods, Management Services Technician with the Licensing division of the California Board of Respiratory Therapists, the specific number of clinical hours will vary depending upon the program in which you enroll. Ms. Woods also stated that most associate’s degree programs can be completed within 18 months to two years.

View a list of schools in California offering respiratory therapist programs.

Certification and Licensing Requirements

As per the Respiratory Board of California, in order to practice as a respiratory therapist in California, graduates must be certified as either a Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) or Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) with the National Board of Respiratory Care (NBRC).

To obtain certification from the NBRC, candidates must meet the following criteria:

  • Pass either the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) or Registered Respiratory Therapist (RTT) exam, both administered by the NBRC.

To obtain licensure from the Respiratory Care Board of California, respiratory therapists must comply with the following requirements:

  • Successfully complete a degree program or certificate program accredited by CoARC or CAAHEP. Those applicants who do not fully meet the education requirements may apply to have them waived by the Board if they possess the requisite professional experience and are in good standing with the state in which they first obtained licensure, as well as with the California state board.
  • Possess current CRT or RRT certification from the NBRC and submit proof of this certification to the California State Board.
  • Successfully complete one state-approved course in the area of Law and Professional Ethics. This may be completed via a distance learning course but must be done before licensure.
  • Submit a completed application for licensure with all appropriate supporting documentation, along with a $200.bank check or money order to cover the application fee. Also required will be fingerprinting by a background investigation firm or law enforcement agency, and transcripts from the institution where you obtained your degree.

Career Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of respiratory therapists is expected to grow by 21% from 2008 to 2018, a rate of growth much faster than the average for all occupations. California in particular has a relatively high vacancy percentage of respiratory therapists, thus providing ample job opportunities.

Part of the reason for this demand arises from the significant aging of the population in California leading to a substantial increase in the number of cardiopulmonary cases. Another reason can be attributed to the expanding role that respiratory therapists play with regard to case management, preventative medicine (e.g. ultrasound diagnostics), emergency services, and early detection of heart disease.

Salary Expectations for Respiratory Therapists

According the Bureau of Labor Statistic, California is one of the top-paying states for respiratory therapists. Across all states annual earnings were highest for those employed in general hospital and surgery centers followed by specialty hospitals (e.g. eye, nose and throat). Below is a listing of entry-level respiratory therapist salaries in four major cities (Salary.com).

Los Angeles $54,985
Oakland $57,903
Riverside $53,271
San Diego $53,719
Santa Barbara $53,691

About 26% of employers also offer sign-on bonuses of up to $5,000. Most employers also offer dental, vision, and life insurance, aid vacation sick leave, and pension plans.