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What Subjects Does a Respiratory Therapist Have to Study?

by Beth Greenwood

Respiratory therapists, as the name implies, work with patients who have difficulty breathing, respiratory illness or cardiopulmonary problems such as heart attacks. Respiratory therapists have a minimum of an associate degree and may have a bachelor’s degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Each state may have different requirements, and an RT must study a number of different subjects to attain a degree.

Begin with the Basics

All RTs must begin with the educational basics of a health care profession. Medical terminology, for example, is one subject an RT must master to understand many other topics. Medical professionals must be able to communicate clearly in both speech and writing, so English is one of the required courses. Mathematics is another necessary skill. Independence University, for example, requires college algebra for RTs. RTs work closely with both patients and other health professionals, so psychology is a useful and often required course. In addition, RTs will need to take electives to meet degree requirements.

Understanding Body Systems

The heart and lungs work in concert to move oxygen throughout the body. Respiratory therapists must understand the effects of inadequate function in either organ to provide safe effective care. To that end, all respiratory therapists study anatomy and physiology of the entire body, with specific attention to the cardiopulmonary system. RTs must understand how gases -- such as oxygen and carbon dioxide -- are absorbed, excreted and balanced in the blood. Waste products and fluid are excreted by the kidneys, so an RT learns about principles of chemistry and the impact that kidney function has on the cardiopulmonary system.

Other Important Topics

RTs work with patients of all ages. They must understand the normal developmental stages of children and how increasing age affects heart and lung function in the elderly. Infections can affect lung function; microbiology and principles of infection control are necessary topics. Microbiology is a required course at Moraine Park Technical College, for example. Medications have different effects on the heart, lungs, kidneys and other organs. In addition to studying the desired actions of medications, RTs must learn about common side effects of various medications. Health care professionals must often deal with ethical issues such as end of life care, so ethics may be one of the courses included in an RT curriculum.

Technical and Clinical Skills

Much of an RT’s work is related to technical skills and the curriculum will always include clinical practice. Some institutions, such as Tidewater Community College, include clinical internships as part of the educational process. An RT must know how to perform tasks such as drawing blood samples, pulmonary function testing and administration of inhaled medications. Medical gases are often flammable and potentially explosive; RTs must know how to keep themselves and patients safe. RTs are integral to life support and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. They must be knowledgeable about the principles and expert in the execution of resuscitation techniques.

About the Author

Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.