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What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

A respiratory therapist can have a variety of duties depending on the patient. A therapist may deal with babies or with the elderly, asthmatics and sufferers of emphysema, victims of medical emergencies such as heart attacks and stroke, or patients recovering from surgery. Respiratory therapists work under the supervision of a physician. Sometimes the therapist will conduct patient interviews. There are also times where the therapist will draw blood to determine the patient's oxygen, carbon dioxide, and pH levels. The main job of the respiratory therapist is to help patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary trouble.

Specific Tasks Performed by a Respiratory Therapist

Respiratory therapists may administer aerosol medications for patients to inhale to increase the patient's oxygen intake. In other cases an oxygen mask or a nasal cannula will be used to increase oxygen flow. If a patient cannot breathe on his/her own a therapist may insert a tube connected to a ventilator into the patient's windpipe and help the patient breathe that way.

There are times, especially after surgery, when mucus builds up in the lungs making it hard for the patient to breathe. In these cases, chest physiotherapy is administered. The patient is placed in a position that makes it easier to drain the mucus. The therapist then claps the patient's chest or back to vibrate the rib cage while the patient coughs, thus disposing of the mucus.

Where Do Respiratory Therapists Work?

Most of the time, a respiratory therapist will work in a hospital. However, sometimes patients need home care. In these cases, the therapist will help the patient and the patient's family understand the life-support system the patient is on, and make periodic house calls to ensure the equipment is working (and being used) correctly. A respiratory therapist may also make a house call in case of a medical emergency--if the equipment malfunctions for instance. Respiratory therapists work in a variety of areas including pulmonary rehabilitation, smoking-cessation counseling, and polysomnography.

To become a respiratory therapist one needs an associate's degree. In 48 states it is required a respiratory therapist be licensed, which entails graduation from an accredited program and successful completion of exams.

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