Choosing a healthcare career requires tapping into your interests because there are so many options available. Knowing you want to help people makes you uniquely qualified to work in several different healthcare fields. One option is to become a respiratory therapist. These nurses deal primarily with breathing problems.
There are similarities and differences between the two healthcare professions. Nurses and respiratory therapists work closely with patients and require much of the same educational background. In this article, we’ll explore the following information to help you make the best choice:
- What is a respiratory therapist?
- What is a nurse?
- What are the differences between respiratory therapists and RN?
- What is the career outlook for respiratory therapists and RNs?
What is a respiratory therapist?
Your patients can experience breathing problems or medical issues with their lungs. When that happens, their medical team often includes a respiratory therapist to help them improve their condition.
Respiratory therapists may treat patients with:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Cystic fibrosis
- Muscular dystrophy
- Parkinson’s disease
- Sleep apnea
They can work in settings that include:
- Emergency rooms
- Intensive care units
- Nursing homes
- Outpatient clinics
- Sleep centers specializing in sleep apnea
What is a nurse?
Nurses serve as caregivers for their patients. As a nursing professional, you help manage your patients’ physical needs, prevent illness, and treat health conditions. You’ll need excellent observational skills to monitor your patients’ health and the ability to think quickly on your feet.
Your job duties depend on the kind of nurse you become. For instance, Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) can check patient vitals and perform bedside care. Registered nurses (RNs) can administer medications and fill supervisory roles.
Nurses can work in a variety of settings, including:
- Nursing homes
- Physicians’ offices
- Trauma centers
What are the differences between respiratory therapists and RNs?
While they both work in direct patient care and in many of the same healthcare facilities, there are several differences between respiratory therapists and RNs. Examining their roles and responsibilities, salaries, licensure, and certifications is the best way to learn how these two healthcare careers align and vary.
|Administer medications||Administer inhalants for the treatment of asthma and other breathing conditions|
|Check and record patient vitals||Conduct and analyze diagnostic & function tests to determine lung capacity/capability|
|Conduct physical exams||Examine patients with pulmonary diseases, disorders, and complications|
|Coordinate care with other members of the healthcare team||Work with doctors and nurses to create treatment plans for patients|
|Provide counseling and healthcare education to patients and their families||Train patients and their family members on how to use prescribed equipment and medications|
Roles and responsibilities
There are key differences between the roles and responsibilities of nurses and respiratory therapists. Nurses have a broad scope of practice compared to respiratory therapists. They focus on the overall health and well-being of their patients, which includes caring for the whole person. Respiratory therapists focus only on the proper functioning of the heart and lungs.
RNs and respiratory therapists make very different salaries. RNs earn an average of $82,750 annually, while respiratory therapists earn $61,830. RNs with Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degrees can earn even higher salaries with some healthcare employers.
Salaries and wages vary for nurses and respiratory therapists are based on their education, experience, and location.
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Nurses must complete an appropriate level of education for their chosen licensure. To become an LPN, you only need an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), which takes 12-18 months. RNs can earn an ADN, but many choose to pursue their BSN as more employers are requiring it.
To become a respiratory therapist, you must complete an associate degree in respiratory therapy from a program approved by the American Medical Association (AMA). The Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care is one of the accrediting agencies accepted by the AMA.
The kind of license you need for nursing depends on the kind of nurse you become. LPNs and RNs must take the NCLEX exam to become licensed to practice. However, the exam varies depending on your career path. Each state has licensing requirements, so it’s best to check with the board of nursing for your intended state of practice.
Respiratory therapists must be licensed in all states except Alaska, where national certification is recommended instead. The National Board for Respiratory Care is the main certifying body. It offers two levels of licenses:
Certification for nursing professionals depends on their career path. For instance, RNs can become certified anywhere from emergency care to women’s health. Some nursing positions require certification, such as Family Nurse Practitioners (FNPs) and Legal Nurse Consultants (LNCs).
All states require licensed respiratory therapists to earn CRT certification. Individual healthcare employers may prefer or mandate RRT certification.
What is the career outlook for respiratory therapists and RNs?
Like all nursing professionals, RNs are in high demand. Projected growth is 6% between 2021 and 2031, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The largest increases in demand for RNs may occur in long-term care facilities.
Respiratory therapists also have a rosy career outlook because of the rising numbers of middle-aged and senior residents in the U.S. As the population ages, the need for treatment of respiratory conditions like COPD and pneumonia will grow. The BLS predicts a 23% growth rate for respiratory therapists between now and 2030.
If career advancement is important to you, then nursing may be your best bet. Nursing has more opportunities for future growth than respiratory therapy.
Learning everything there is to know about nurses and respiratory therapists may lead to more questions. You can always seek advice from those who currently hold positions in healthcare facilities across the U.S. before deciding which career path is right for you.
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- Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care. coarc.com. Accessed June 13, 2022.
- National Board for Respiratory Care. nbrc.org. Accessed June 13, 2022.
- Occupational Outlook Handbook: Registered Nurses. bls.gov. Accessed June 13, 2022.
- Occupational Outlook Handbook: Respiratory Therapists. bls.gov. Accessed June 13, 2022.
- What is a respiratory therapist? webmd.com. Accessed June 13, 2022.
- Photo by Robina Weermeijer