Breathing Room Job Prospects Look Increasingly Bright in Respiratory Therapy

Esther Perrelli-Brookes says the class of new students that came into the Respiratory Therapy program at Springfield Technical Community College in September is one of the largest in recent memory, is quite diverse, and speaks to the growing popularity of this field of study.There’s a husband-and-wife team enrolled, for example, said Perrelli-Brookes, as well as a brother-sister tandem, which are fairly rare in higher education. But there are also many older individuals, some with bachelor’s and even master’s degrees who are looking to launch second careers, she continued, noting that the fact that they chose respiratory therapy is indicative of how this field is being perceived.

“It’s growing, and it’s going to continue to grow,” she told the Healthcare News, listing everything from the aging of America to a far greater focus on sleeping disorders as reasons why those who graduate from this two-year program probably won’t have any trouble securing employment.

“Employment of respiratory therapists is expected to grow by 21{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} from 2008 to 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations,” writes the Bureau of Labor Statistics in its Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 edition. “The increasing demand will come from substantial growth in the middle-aged and elderly population — a development that will heighten the incidence of cardiopulmonary disease. Growth in demand will also result from the expanding role of respiratory therapists in case management, disease prevention, emergency care, and the early detection of pulmonary disorders.”

This solid employment picture was one of the factors that attracted Monica and Rich Spafford, that aforementioned husband-and-wife team, to the STCC program. Rich told the Healthcare News that he had owned his own businesses — a retail store and an online venture involving eBay — for about a decade, but the recession hit both very hard, and he began looking for another career option.

“I was getting burned out and wanted to go in a different direction. My wife said, ’try a few anatomy classes, see if you like it, and maybe get into the medical field,’” said Rich, noting that Monica is a medical assistant and graduate of STCC’s program in that field. “My grandmother has emphysema, so I have taken care of her and still do. I’m familiar with respiratory care as far as helping her with her oxygen and checking her vital signs. I took a couple of classes in anatomy and physiology at STCC, and just fell in love with it.”

To make a long story somewhat shorter, Rich, who was considering nursing, talked with Perrelli-Brookes and other administrators in the Respiratory Care program, and became intrigued by the job description and the employment potential. And soon thereafter, Monica had the same conversations and made the same choice.

Now, they sit next to one another in Respiratory Care 1 class.

For this, the latest installment of its Career Focus series, The Healthcare News takes an indepth look at respiratory therapy, why it’s on a track for continued growth, and what the Spaffords and the others enrolled in the program have to look forward to.

Steady Course

Rich Spafford said he and Monica have become more than a little competitive as they wind their way through their first semester in the Respiratory Therapy program.

“We try to outdo each other with the tests, quizzes, and doing clinicals — one week she’ll get a 96 on a test and I’ll get a 94, and then it goes back and forth. Even the instructors have noticed there’s a competitiveness there, but I think it’s all good,” he said, adding that there are some friendly wagers attached to many of these exercises; usually the lower scorer has to buy dinner for the higher finisher.

But there are far bigger stakes involved for both, he continued, adding that they are expecting to launch successful and rewarding careers in the field, and they are not alone in that regard.

Indeed, while respiratory therapy has always been a fairly popular career path within the broad health care realm, it has become increasingly popular in recent years, said Perrelli-Brookes, because of that spiraling need for such specialists.

Writes the bureau of Labor Statistics, “job opportunities are expected to be very good, especially for those with a bachelor’s degree and certification, and those with cardiopulmonary-care skills or experience working with infants. The vast majority of job openings will continue to be hospitals; however, a growing number of openings are expected to be outside of hospitals, especially in home health care services, offices of physicians or other health practitioners, consumer-goods firms, or in the employment-services industry as a temporary worker in various settings.”

As for the present tense, the job picture is sound, said Perrelli-Brookes, noting quickly that the still-soft economy has certainly impacted hiring in this field, as it has in many others as well.

“Many hospitals had hiring freezes in place, but it seems that most of those have been lifted,” she explained, adding that some recent graduates have been finding per-diem work rather than full-time staff positions. “People are being placed. If they want a job, they get a job.”

There are 16 people in the class that started in September, said Perrelli-Brookes, adding that more than 80{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} will likely complete the program and enter the field. Once in it, they will provide a variety of services. In general, respiratory therapists, also known as respiratory-care practitioners, evaluate treat, and care for patients with breathing or other cardiopulmonary disorders.

Practicing under the direction of a physician, these individuals assume primary responsibility for all respiratory-care therapeutic treatments and diagnostic procedures. They consult with physicians and other health care staff to help develop and modify patient-care plans. Therapists evaluate and treat all types of ages, from premature infants whose lungs are not fully developed to elderly people whose lungs are diseased.

And work can be found in a number of settings, including hospitals, physicians’ offices, nursing homes, and, increasingly, the patient’s home. Meanwhile, sleep labs, and there are many in this area, are becoming an increasingly popular landing spot.

“Home care is seeing explosive growth,” she explained. “People are living longer, of course, and many of them are home, on oxygen. We’re also seeing a lot more work with people with sleep disorders, people with CPAP machines in their homes.”

At STCC, which has one of two programs in Western Mass. (Berkshire Community College has other), students prepare for such work through a mix of class time, exercises with patient simulators, and in practicums at area hospitals, where they get hands-on experience. All three components are critical to the process of preparing students for what they will encounter on the job — and the comprehensive exam that they must pass to obtain licensure.

The work in the SIM lab, as it’s called, often involves the Respiratory Therapy students working with students in other disciplines — as they would in the real world — to evaluate and treat a patient. And the lab facilities allow for any number of scenarios to be played out.

“When we run a simulation here, they don’t get any information beforehand,” said Perrelli-Brookes. “They’re just called to a room, and they have to respond; they have to take all the skills they’ve acquired and put them to use.”

Air Apparent

While the Spaffords appear to be going back and forth in their weekly competitive jousts within the first semester’s work in the Respiratory Therapy program, it seems that everyone who completes this course of study and passes the test for licensure will be a winner.

The trend line clearly shows that this is a profession with a very bright future. This means that those now in the program or considering this path can breathe a little easier, even as they prepare for a career helping patients to do the same.