Breathing is a necessity of life. While we can survive for a time without food or water, we can’t survive long without breathing. But for those with chronic lung diseases or cancer like pleural mesothelioma, taking a breath can be challenging. If the lungs are riddled with tumors or scar tissue and can’t function properly, patients quickly face a decrease in the quality of their life.
Respiratory therapy is so important for these patients, and respiratory therapists are needed now more than ever. The field is rapidly growing, and is expected to outpace employment in most other professions through 2024 because of the quickly growing middle-aged and elderly population. But respiratory therapy goes far beyond treating the elderly.
What is Respiratory Therapy?
Respiratory therapists have a lot of responsibilities and assist in treating all kinds of lung conditions, from sleep disorders and asthma to more severe instances of cancer. The main goal is to help patients breathe better and manage their condition. These practitioners monitor heart and lung function and prescribe an appropriate treatment.
These lung and breathing experts have advanced knowledge of medical technology in addition to a thorough understanding of the cardiovascular and respiratory physiology. Therapists can assist in evaluating a patient’s condition and sometimes will even help in diagnosing a patient.
Therapists will also perform physical examinations to decide on treatment options, such as available therapies, exercises a patient can do on their own or medical equipment that might be needed to assist a patient’s breathing. They will consult with a patient’s doctor on therapy needs or a change of therapy for their case.
Respiratory therapists generally assist primary physicians and work with a medical team to assist patients in every condition, whether it’s an emergency Code Blue situation or assessing a patient with asthma. Respiratory therapists are actually needed in a lot of different facilities for this reason, including hospitals, hospices, sleep disorder centers, retirement and wellness centers. Some even work with manufacturers of medical devices to help improve the available technology.
Respiratory therapy is considered a fast moving field, as no day will be exactly the same as the next. Some examples of tasks a therapist might monitor in a day include:
- Cardiopulmonary resuscitation
- Manage ventilators and other airway devices for those who can’t breathe on their own
- Administering drugs to the lungs
- Measuring heart and lung function
- Analyzing breath, blood and tissue samples to determine oxygen levels
- Educating patients on their lung disease and how to manage it
Overall, those in the medical field acknowledge respiratory therapy as a great blend between patient interaction and technology.
How to Become a Respiratory Therapist
Students who choose to go into this field can pursue either an accredited two or four-year program. It’s possible to attain an associate’s degree to become a respiratory therapist, though many choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Recently, the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC) has been moving toward only allowing four year programs to be accredited, though there are still many associate degree options available.
The programs include lectures, laboratory work, and clinical rotations at hospitals and medical facilities affiliated with the school. When deciding on a program, students should consider how these clinical practice hours are spread out among different specialties. For example, if they’re more interested in pediatric respiratory therapy or more diagnostic testing they should ensure they find a program that will give them the necessary experience in that specialty.
There are two certification levels that can be achieved after schooling: a certified respiratory therapist (CRT) or a registered respiratory therapist (RRT), both of which are overlooked by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). The CRT exam consists of 160 multiple choice questions, while the RRT exam consists of a multiple choice portion in addition to a clinical simulation test. Candidates must pass the CRT before they are eligible to sit for the RRT exam. Graduates have a three-year window to take and pass the RRT exam after they graduate, or will have to retake the CRT before taking this advanced-level test.
Additionally, each state has has their own unique licensure requirements before a respiratory therapist can begin practicing medicine. In general respiratory therapists must have their degree and at least pass the CRT exam to receive a license. Certain specialty areas, like working in intensive care units, will require the therapist to pass the RRT as well.
Respiratory Therapy and Mesothelioma
While mesothelioma is a rare cancer and likely not the first lung condition that comes to mind when considering this field, it’s nevertheless an important disease for respiratory therapists to understand. Asbestos exposure has been a global problem for decades, and it’s estimated at least 20 million Americans will develop the disease in their lifetime.
With the long latency period before symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases begin to show, it’s an extremely difficult disease to correctly diagnose. Early symptoms of pleural mesothelioma can include chest pain, difficulty breathing and fluid buildup. It’s difficult to detect the disease early, and these nonspecific symptoms lead to misdiagnoses of even common illnesses like the flu.
More often than not, mesothelioma isn’t properly diagnosed until the disease has progressed to a later stage with fewer treatment options. Mesothelioma has a notoriously poor prognosis, with most patients having just 12 – 21 months to live. If a respiratory therapist could help identify the symptoms of mesothelioma early on in a patient’s first sign of symptoms like a struggle to breathe, it could have a positive impact on their prognosis.
Respiratory therapists can also be vital for patients undergoing surgery to treat pleural mesothelioma. One of the riskier surgeries is an extrapleural pneumonectomy, which entails the removal of the infected lung, part of the diaphragm, the lung lining, and the covering of the heart.
Before oncologists can move forward with such an intense procedure, a patient must undergo a significant amount of testing to ensure their remaining lung will be strong enough to support the body. Respiratory therapists would be extremely helpful throughout this process to help determine lung function and the best course of action. After this surgery, this field would also be vital to helping a patient recover and maintain strong lung function in their remaining lung.
Pursuing a career in any medical field can be extremely challenging, but equally rewarding. This field is needed now more than ever for a variety of lung conditions, including mesothelioma. Breathing is essential for survival, and respiratory therapy can make a world of difference for so many patients.