Health Career: Respiratory Therapist

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

With only an associate degree, a licensed respiratory therapist can make an annual mean wage of $71,010 in the Syracuse area. The career is ranked at sixth in the US News & World Reports’ Top Health Care Jobs. The US Department of Labor states that by 2029, they expect a 19%-plus increase in demand for respiratory therapists.

These professionals take care of patients of all ages who have breathing difficulties. This can include assessing, treating and supervising respiratory therapy technicians in in-patient and outpatient settings.

Stephen G. Smith, respiratory therapist and past chairman and extended member of the New York State Education Department Respiratory Therapy Licensure Board, said that 74% of respiratory therapists work in hospitals. That is because it is not covered by Medicare or health insurance, making it a costly service for doctor’s offices to provide. Large healthcare systems can more easily absorb the expense.

“One of our concerns is that they need to work in inpatient and outpatient settings,” he said.

He is working to require a bachelor’s degree for the profession. However, that can only help respiratory therapists gain employment because it will open the way for health insurance companies to cover their services. Medicare requires a bachelor’s degree as a minimum for this type of provider to be covered and typically, health insurers follow Medicare’s lead on what’s covered.

“What would happen is those practicing now would be grandfathered in,” Smith said. “Once the bill became law, those in school, whether associate degree or bachelor’s, would require a Bachelor of Science in respiratory therapy to practice.”

Then, the person needs to pass a licensure exam to practice.

The role has room to grow with positions in supervision and management, positions in academia for those willing to achieve the necessary experience and, as needed, further education. In addition to these roles, Smith has also operated his own durable medical equipment business that specialized in chronic pediatric cardiopulmonary cases.

“You have to be strong in math and the sciences,” Smith said. “You have to have good interpersonal skills and be able to talk with people and educate people with cardiopulmonary diseases and their families. That’s a big responsibility.” 

For Taylor Iannuzzo, registered respiratory therapist at Crouse Hospital, becoming a respiratory therapist seven years ago fulfilled her lifelong dream of working in healthcare. She likes the age range—preterm babies through geriatric adults—and the variety.

“There’s something different every day,” Iannuzzo said. “Yesterday, I was working in the NICU. I went from helping with an intubation with an infant to a cardiac arrest in the ER.”

Every three years, respiratory therapists must renew their licenses and show proof of sufficient continuing education credits. They can also specialize in credentials like adult care or NICU care to further their skills.

“I like building the relationships with our patients,” Iannuzzo said. “There are a lot of patients we see frequently. You start to build relationships with them. Every time they come in, you know what they need to get them better and out of the hospital.”

She listed the desire to work hard, compassion and the ability to quickly make decisions among the traits necessary for respiratory therapists.

The work can also be challenging such as when “we don’t get the outcome we want,” Iannuzzo said. “But there are many good days where we’re part of a good team, celebrating successes with patients, which is very rewarding.”

Adrienne Hickey, associate director for respiratory therapy at Upstate Respiratory, had not heard of respiratory therapy until her high school guidance counselor told her about it. She had a science-heavy career track and liked the idea of caring for people. She began working in the field in 2005 and started in her current role in 2020.

“Math and science are helpful, but not necessary,” she said. “The problem solving needs to be there. Respiratory therapy, unlike nursing, is equipment-driven. We use a lot of machines that help you with breathing. You don’t have to know every single piece of equipment but should know your equipment well.”

Hickey likes the fact that respiratory therapists have so many options. Some respiratory therapists eventually work in equipment sales or, with additional training, in academia or managerial roles.

“I love my job because it’s different every day,” she said. “I love the education, the equipment and love, love, love the people part. That’s the best part: the patients.”