Part 1 - What is a Respiratory Therapist?

Respiratory therapists (RTs) are highly skilled health care professionals who work in partnership with doctors, nurses and other members of the health care team. RTs care for patients by evaluating, treating, and maintaining the patient’s cardiopulmonary, or heart and lung, function. Respiratory therapists have specialized medical expertise and use advanced medical technologies. They are educated to treat all age groups, from newborns to the elderly.

Where do Respiratory Therapists Work?
Most respiratory therapists work in hospital settings, especially high-risk areas that may include:
  • Intensive care units (ICU)
  • Emergency departments (ER)
  • Operating rooms (OR)
  • Neonatal nurseries
  • General wards
Respiratory therapists also work in:
  • Outpatient clinics (eg. pulmonary rehabilitation, asthma/COPD, smoking cessation)
  • Community Health Centres
  • Specialized medical centers, such as sleep labs
  • Patients’ homes
What is the Role of a Respiratory Therapist?
Respiratory Therapists provide care and treatment for individuals of all ages who require assistance to maintain their airway, improve their breathing and/or support their cardiac function. Respiratory therapists have a diverse set of skills that allow them to:
  • Treat patients who have experienced trauma or have undergone surgery and require intensive care.
  • Assist with cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
  • Stabilize high-risk patients as they are moved by air or ground ambulance.
  • Provide support in high-risk deliveries for babies who have trouble breathing.
  • Assist in the delivery of anesthesia in the operating room.
  • Do tests to measure lung function.
  • Administer medical gases like oxygen or nitric oxide, or inhaled drugs for conditions such as asthma.
  • Educate the public and patients on appropriate precautions to take during an influenza pandemic.
  • Provide information and instruction to health care workers on proper infection control practices particularly in the event of an infectious outbreak.
  • Assist in the delivery of hyperbaric therapies.
  • Provide pulmonary rehabilitation services.
  • Teach patients to manage a variety of medical conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
  • Provide respiratory care to adults and children in their homes.
  • Provide healthcare in specialized clinics for patients with breathing problems such as asthma, emphysema, or cystic fibrosis.
  • Administer and provide care in cardiac diagnostic clinics, pulmonary function clinics, and sleep disorder labs.
  • Provide education to patients, members of other healthcare professions, and the public on topics such as smoking cessation.
  • Advance the practice of respiratory therapy by doing research and creating clinical practice guidelines.
  • Fill managerial and administrative positions.
  • Work in private industries such as medical equipment sales, service and clinical support.
How are Respiratory Therapists Educated in Canada?
Most people who wish to become respiratory therapists enter educational programs offered by either community colleges or universities. Colleges generally offer a three-year diploma program and universities offer a four-year degree program. Respiratory therapy educational programs include both theoretical and clinical practice components. The clinical component usually involves extensive hands-on training in a hospital setting. What are the steps you must take to become a respiratory therapist?
  1. All applicants must graduate from an educational program that is accredited by the Council on Accreditation of Respiratory Therapy Education (CoARTE). A list of accredited schools in Canada can be found on the CoARTE site under ”Accredited Programs“. Applicants are encouraged to contact schools directly to discuss their entrance requirements and/or learn the process for a prior learning assessment.
    • All educational programs in Canada must prepare their graduates to meet the occupational standards described in the National Alliance of Respiratory Therapy Regulatory Bodies 2011 National Competency Profile. This document describes each of the specific competencies or skills that a respiratory therapist must demonstrate for a patient population (neonatal, pediatric or adult) when they begin practice.
    • Educators of respiratory therapy produced a Companion Document to the National Competency Profile. It details the knowledge that RTs must demonstrate for each of the competencies. This document was developed with the support of the national professional association, the Canadian Society of Respiratory Therapists and Employment and Social Development Canada.
    • Applicants must successfully complete a certification examination administered by the Canadian Board for Respiratory Care or the L’Epreuve Syntheses in the province of Quebec.
  2. Applicants then obtain either a license to practice from a provincial regulatory body or a credential from the Canadian Society of Respiratory Therapist for those jurisdictions where a license is not required. This will be described in more detail in .

What is the Scope of Practice of a Respiratory Therapist?

Respiratory therapists perform many skills and procedures for all age groups (newborn, pediatric and adult) within their scope of practice. RTs require both general skills and specific skills to do these functions.

General Skills
General skills, required for most functions, include:
  • Professionalism, or professional conduct - RTs must be able to:
    • Use acceptable language, behavior and attire
    • Work within medical/legal and ethical guidelines for practice
    • Participate in continuing education
    • Adhere to scope of practice limitations
  • Communication (verbal, non-verbal, written) - RTs must be able to:
    • Use recognized medical terminology
    • Maintain documents and records
    • Participate in professional consultations in a multidisciplinary health care system
    • Receive and transcribe verbal orders
  • Analysis and Problem Solving - RTs must be able to:
    • Demonstrate critical judgment in respiratory therapy practice
    • Identify issues related to equipment application or operation
    • Demonstrate problem solving skills
    • Demonstrate decision making skills
    • Demonstrate the ability to establish priorities according to acuity
  • Health and Safety - RTs must be able to:
    • Adhere to occupational health and safety guidelines
    • Apply infection prevention and control precautions
    • Use personal protective equipment
    • Adhere to regulations for handling cylinders and medical gases
  • Administration - RTs must be able to:
    • Demonstrate basic computer and electronic data management skills
    • Participate in meetings in the work setting and the professional association setting
    • Evaluate the performance of others (peers/students) and document findings
  • Health Education and Promotion - RTs must be able to:
    • Provide education to patients/clients, family members, community groups and other healthcare professionals
    • Promote cardio-respiratory health
Specific Skills
RTs require specific skills to perform functions to aid in the diagnosis or treatment of patients who have a cardio-pulmonary condition. Specific skills are generally divided into two distinct categories: Click on each title to find a detailed description of these skills.