What Is a Respiratory Therapist?

Respiratory therapists may play a big role in COVID-19 recovery.

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As more and more people report long-term symptoms of COVID-19, doctors are referring many “long haulers” to respiratory therapists. This might lead you to ask a very fair question: What is a respiratory therapist?

Think of it this way: If you have an injury or other problem that limits your mobility, you might visit a physical therapist. They provide rehabilitation to strengthen and heal the joint. As a result, you can go about your life with less pain and fewer limitations.

Similarly, if you have a problem with your lungs or your breathing, you might benefit from a respiratory therapist. First, they help pinpoint the source of your respiratory problem. Then, they help train you to use your lungs to the best of your ability.

“There are many factors that affect how well or how poorly we breathe,” says Noah Greenspan, DPT, CCS, EMT-B, clinical specialist in cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapy. “We really want to find out what is the main issue causing this person’s problem.”

What They Do

Respiratory therapists may work in two key settings. First, they provide outpatient pulmonary rehabilitation to help people with lung problems. In this setting, they might provide breathing retraining and endurance training.

Additionally, rehab may include education of healthy behaviors that impact breathing. “Pulmonary rehab … involves lifestyle changes. It involves education. It involves empowering the patient,” says Dr. Greenspan.

Respiratory therapists may also work in hospitals to help treat and diagnose lung conditions. In this setting, respiratory therapists can aid with breathing devices (such as ventilators for patients with COVID-19), consult with other doctors to help diagnose challenging lung problems, or help provide emergency care.

Who They Help

A respiratory therapist may be beneficial for anyone who is experiencing a problem with their lungs or breathing. This may include people with:

Additionally, a respiratory therapist may provide pulmonary rehab to someone before and after surgery, which can help improve outcomes. It helps to get the patient in “peak condition” prior to the surgery “so that they come through with the least amount of complications possible,” says Dr. Greenspan.

“A lot of times, physicians will send patients to pulmonary rehab when they feel like it’s the end of the line,” says Dr. Greenspan. “But what some people call the end of the line, we consider the starting line. And wherever you are at this moment, we know that we can help you get better.”