The need for respiratory therapists grows during pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the stark reality for millions of Americans and people around the globe that there are critically ill patients among us who at times need mechanical ventilation.

Healthcare recruiters and other healthcare professionals, are typically aware that a ventilator needs a skilled, educated professional to operate it. Those professionals are respiratory therapists (RTs).

RTs are considered by some as the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 crisis. This is likely because of a general lack of media coverage about their work and an unfamiliarity by some with the profession.

Under normal conditions, healthcare recruiting can prove challenging. Amid COVID-19, filling RT vacancies quickly for organizations located in pandemic hot spots, such as the New York metropolitan and others, is essential.

Nurse.com spoke with two RTs to gain insight into strategies on recruiting fellow respiratory therapists during COVID-19 and beyond, and the path required to join the profession.

 

Describing the need for RTs

Shawna Strickland, PhD, CAE, RRT, FAARC, associate executive director at the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC), described the life-saving work of RTs during the pandemic.

“COVID-19 infections can lead to severe lung illnesses,” she said. “This has increased the demand for respiratory therapists with critical care knowledge and experience, as these patients require very sophisticated mechanical ventilation strategies. As the number of patients who require mechanical ventilation grows, so does the demand for RTs.”

One RT is needed to operate four ventilators (one ventilator per patient/four patients), said Patrick Moore, RRT, BHA, RCP, project specialist with Yellow Brick Consulting of Glendora, Calif., an RT classroom instructor in an associate degree program and a former clinical educator in acute care.

While some practice guidelines are changing and more is discovered regarding the most effective treatments for COVID-19, many critical patients have been placed on ventilators as their condition worsen.

To understand the great need for RTs during the COVID-19 crisis, Moore said, “If you’re looking at using 2,000 ventilators, that would require 500 RTs for one 12-hour shift. For two 12-hour shifts, you would need 1,000 RTs to be fully staffed.”

Finding respiratory therapists during the pandemic highlights the need for effective recruiting strategies by hospitals, emergency planners, and in particular, in areas considered “hot spots” with more severe cases requiring hospitalizations.

Suggested recruiting strategies

Under normal conditions and before the pandemic, Strickland said, “The job demand for RTs typically differs by region.  For example, California generally produces a lot of RTs in comparison to other states. Many of those RT graduates seek jobs in other states, some of which have hospitals with many job openings.”

If you’re recruiting for an organization in a current COVID-19 hot spot, it’s important to communicate to job candidates the perks of working with your organization.  This is good practice under normal conditions, and even more so a pandemic.

”Competitive pay, benefits, and a progressive department are always attractive for a job offer” Strickland said. “. During COVID-19, it’s important RTs know that the hospital and department they’re considering working for, provides adequate personal protective equipment. This is vital.”

Another strategy for healthcare organizations to consider, is assessing if any of their current employees have an interest in becoming RTs, then offering tuition assistance for their training.

“Promoting within the facility to those staff members who wish to change careers is a good option to grow the profession,” Strickland said”. “Tuition reimbursement is a great benefit that many employees are either unaware of, or don’t know how to use effectively.

Strickland described the work of respiratory therapists as:

  • Assessing, diagnosing and treating cardiopulmonary conditions for a variety of patients
  • Caring for patients with chronic pulmonary diseases such asCOPD, cystic fibrosis, and asthma – to help them self-manage their disease for the best quality of life.

Additional work duties in acute care settings include:

  • Working with premature infants whose lungs are too immature at birth to support them. RTs provide mechanical ventilation until infants are strong enough to breathe on their own.
  • Caring for patients with critical illnesses, have experienced trauma or with severe infections and pneumonia, RTs support their ventilatory needs while they recover from their acute condition.

RTs administer therapeutics (medications) and interventions such as mechanical ventilation, Strickland said, along with diagnosing cardiopulmonary conditions through::

  • pulmonary function tests
  • polysomnography and
  • blood tests.

 

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Background on RT training, certifications 

When recruiting RTs, Strickland said they can come to the table having taken three different educational pathways

  • associate’s degree,
  • bachelor’s degree or
  • master’s degree.

 

Most programs are at the associate’s level, according to Strickland,

  • “Regardless of the degree awarded, all RT programs require a rigorous professional phase that includes didactic, laboratory, and clinical experiences,” she said.

 

If you’re hiring a respiratory therapist or offering tuition reimbursement to staff for an RT program:

RTs must enroll in, or have graduated from, an accredited school.

“All states (except Alaska) require graduation from an accredited respiratory care program in addition to the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) credential,” Strickland.

Human resource staff and decision makers offering tuition reimbursement, need to know there are no “fast track” options available for a healthcare provider from another discipline, to become a respiratory therapist.

“There may be some classes that transfer in,” she said. “. However, that would require a conversation between the candidate and the RT program director.”

Upon graduation, RTs need to become certified.

“The RT challenges the NBRC credentialing examinations to earn the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) credential,” she said.“  After that, there is another examination, the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) credential. All states accept the NBRC examination results. There is no requirement to take a test in every state.”

Once RTs earn national certification, they need to verify any additional requirements of the state they intend to practice in, according to Strickland.

RTs need a license to practice in their respective states. Licensure is required to practice in all states in the U.S., with the exception of Alaska.

If you’re searching for classes for your staff in pulmonary care, check out our courses on mechanical ventilation and weaning and understanding the chest x-ray.