Guidance Centre Occupational Information Monograph

Revised to 1993 CCDO Classification 3159-134 Holland Code IRS-NOC 3214
Technical and Skilled Occupations in Health

Respiratory Therapists are allied health-care workers who, under a physician’s medical direction and supervision, plan and implement a variety of therapeutic and diagnostic procedures for patients suffering from a wide range of heart and lung disorders. They are also responsible for the purchase, operation and general maintenance of complex equipment Respiratory Therapists combine technical skills with- scientific information for the benefit of the patients they serve.

Nature of the Work

Respiratory Therapists generally work in larger hospitals — those having 50 or more beds. Their responsibilities are twofold:

  • to use a wide range of respiratory techniques and equipment to treat patients with heart and lung problems, and
  • to maintain the equipment

Respiratory Therapists work with the entire medical team in all areas of the hospital. They:

  • administer medical gases such as oxygen and oxygen-air mixtures
  • administer humidified air and medications given in aerosol form to manage respiratory related abnormalities
  • assist with cardio-pulmonary resuscitation
  • monitor vital signs
  • keep records of therapy given
  • advise physicians on changes in patients conditions

They may be found on the wards helping a patient with chronic asthma; working in the maintenance section of the respiratory-therapy department; in the intensive care unit providing mechanical ventilatory support to the victim of motor-vehicle accident, a stroke or a heart attack, or a patient under going abdominal, thoracic or open heart surgery; in the newborn nursery assisting premature infants in their quest to breathe; in the pulmonary-function laboratory performing various breathing tests to provide diagnostic information; analyzing blood for carbon-dioxide and oxygen levels; or even in an ambulance that is carrying a high risk patient.

Respiratory Therapists are diversified health care professionals in contact with the adult, the child and the infant, the aged and the newborn, the acutely ill and the chronically sick.

Respiratory Therapists are often the first health professionals summoned to the emergency department. A person who does not breathe for three to five minutes will probably not survive without brain damage, not survive without brain damage, and one deprived of oxygen for more than nine minutes will die.

In order to function clinically at the patient’s bedside and also to handle routine maintenance within a respiratory-therapy department, the therapist must have precise knowledge of the design, function, and maintenance of the equipment and procedures in current use. Further, therapists must be able to deal effectively and sympathetically with patients as well as with physicians, nurses and other allied health professionals.

Like other professionals in medicine, graduate Therapists have an inherent responsibility to keep abreast of their field by reading current literature and attending professional meetings. Their major goal must be the well-being of the patient and this requires them to strive to provide the best services possible by keeping abreast of new developments.

Working Conditions

The general working conditions are good. Therapists work in medical settings. They are physically active and on their feet for most of their day. Therapists may be assigned to specific wards or areas for specified periods of time or may move from ward to ward carrying out routine therapy.

Since therapists often work in high stress areas such as the intensive care unit, emergency room. or neonatal intensive-care unit, they must be able to cope with the stress of dealing with critically ill patients. Respiratory care is a 24-hour-a-day concern and all major hospitals maintain a full shift rotation of respiratory-therapy personnel seven days a week. Respiratory therapists usually work from 35 to 40 hours per week. Owing to the nature of the work, irregular hours and shifts are to be expected. Many respiratory therapists, particularly those in larger hospitals, are now members of labour unions.

Preparation Needed

Respiratory Therapists require the following skills/traits:

  • good physical and mental health
  • ability to work well under intense pressure
  • stamina
  • high degree of integrity
  • tact and discretion
  • a desire to help others
  • good teamwork and leadership skills.

Respiratory Therapists are graduates of two to three year training programs, offered at community colleges and institutes in conjunction with hospitals. The theoretical portion of the program includes subjects such as anatomy, physiology, physics, chemistry, pathophysiology, bacteriology, pharmacology, human relations, respiratory equipment and procedures. The clinical portion of the program is under the supervision of a clinical instructor who is responsible for helping the student integrate theoretical knowledge with correct clinical practice.

Following graduation from their training program, students are eligible to write the national registration examination of the Canadian Board for Respiratory Care. Successful completion of the exam leads to certification as a registered respiratory therapist. Licensure is mandatory for respiratory therapists in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia. In Quebec, membership in the professional corporation for respiratory therapy is mandatory.

Employment, Advancement, Outlook

Opportunities in this field are expected to grow at an above average rate. This is a relatively new field and most opportunities are still found in large urban centres. Respiratory Therapists may advance to supervisory or teaching positions.


Salaries vary depending upon the employer, experience, location and specific duties. However, the average starting salary is approximately $35,000 per year.

Related Careers

Careers in the health care profession are related to respiratory therapy. Additional and/or alternative training will be required for most positions. There are also opportunities in medical equipment sales and teaching.