Greg Alexander

Breath of fresh air for job seekers

Baltimore Sun, February 12, 2006

Job opportunities in healthcare abound in an array of fields – nursing, medical technology, pharmacy, biotechnology, radiology, among others. However, there’s another healthcare field that may not garner as much press as others, but insiders say is a hot field that job seekers should definitely consider – respiratory therapy.

“It’s a very rewarding job where you get to help people, while earning a significant amount of money,” says Bob Barlipp, RRT-NPS, manager of respiratory care services at Sinai Hospital. Barlipp, who has been in the field since 1979 and at Sinai since 1992, says that those starting in the field can earn $24 to $26 an hour and enjoy a signing bonus at some hospitals that can be in the $16,000 range. With the opportunity to pick up shifts, if desired, and overtime pay, Barlipp notes that many respiratory therapists earn more than the supervisors they report to.

So, what exactly does a respiratory therapist do? Respiratory therapists, sometimes called respiratory care practitioners or respiratory care coordinators, attend to those who suffer from pulmonary conditions – including those with asthma, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung disease in which the lung is damaged – in addition to assisting patients requiring respiratory assistance in the hospital. This ability to move around and work in different areas and treat patients of varying ages and conditions is also a draw to the field.

“Being able to work in different areas keeps you fresh,” says Jennifer Bunch, RRT-NPS, a respiratory care coordinator at Greater Baltimore Medical Center (GBMC). “I work with neonatal patients, kids in pediatrics with asthma, as well as adults. Although we have core respiratory therapists that work strictly in NICU, I’m glad that I get to move around. Working with babies, especially the premature ones with underdeveloped lungs, can burn you out, so it’s nice to be able to switch gears and go work with adults,” says Bunch, who has been a respiratory therapist for 10 years, the last two years at GBMC. Barlipp says that it’s typical for respiratory therapists to be exposed to different areas of the hospital. “Respiratory therapists work in all critical care areas and are part of the code team to assist in resuscitation,” says Barlipp, who adds that Sinai has a Pediatric Critical Care Transport Program for those hospitals that do not have pediatric trauma units.

Bunch notes that although GBMC is not a trauma hospital, she sees first-hand the difference she makes for patients, which she finds very rewarding. “The interaction with patients and the ability to help is my favorite part of the job. It’s such a great feeling when you give breathing treatments to a patient or when you are able to wean a patient off of a ventilator. They’ll say, ‘You really helped me,’ and that is such a great feeling.” She adds that working with parents of patients in NICU is wonderful. “The parents are great to work with, and since we are not a very big hospital, we get to spend a lot of time with them.”

Bunch says that since many adult patients suffer from chronic respiratory ailments, she gets to treat patients regularly, which helps create a bond that is beneficial to the patient. “We have some adults that come in quite often, such as those with chronic asthma or emphysema, so they get to know us quite well. This makes them feel at ease to work with the same therapist.” Barlipp says that those work in home health care – a growing segment of the field, he says – also get to work with their patients over a long period of time.

Barlipp says that most respiratory therapists have the personality that feeds off of excitement similar to those of paramedics and those who work in a trauma setting; however, an important part of the job is education. “Patient education is very important. When patients with chronic lung diseases are discharged from Sinai, they are given an ‘action plan’ that outlines a recommended exercise regiment, diet recommendations, medication instructions and symptoms to look out for, so proper education is key.” Bunch adds that she spends time educating nurses and other staff members on respiratory equipment and therapies. “There are different types of equipment, so I educate them on all of the different alarms on a ventilator, for example. If a respiratory therapist in not in the room in the case of an emergency, we show the nurse how to deal with an alarm until we get there.”

Like many healthcare fields, a flexible schedule is a big draw. Bunch says that she typically works three 12-hour shifts, and if she needs to pick up a day shift, it’s not a problem. “We have a 5 percent vacancy rate now, so many of our therapists work 50-60 hours a week, which is a lot of overtime pay. Also, hospitals are good about vacation time – many times, you’ll receive six weeks off a year,” says Barlipp.

While a four-year bachelor of science degree in respiratory therapy is offered at schools like Salisbury State University, most in the field complete an associate degree program, like the one offered at Carroll Community College, which has an associate of applied sciences program in respiratory therapy in conjunction with Frederick Community College. As part of the Mid-Maryland Allied Healthcare Education Consortium, students are able to take their pre-clinical courses at Carroll before completing clinical courses at Frederick. “We recognized that offering the full program at Carroll would be very expensive, so we joined the consortium five years ago,” says Judy Coen, faculty adviser for the respiratory therapy program at Carroll Community College. “The advantage to this program is that the prerequisite courses taken by students are the same for most allied health fields, so while they are taking these classes at Carroll, they can decide what direction they want to take next.” Once at Frederick Community College, students will take such courses as “Fundamentals of Respiratory Therapy,” “Pharmacology,” “Respiratory Home Care” and “Gas Exchange Physiology.” After graduation, students take the CRT and RRT licensure exams.

“A lot of students initially look at nursing because they want to work in healthcare, but many are unaware of the respiratory therapy field, which is a rewarding field that pays quite well,” says Coen.”

Indeed. Demand for respiratory therapists will continue to grow as the population ages, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Maryland is one of the top highest-paying states for this occupation; annual mean wages for respiratory therapists in Maryland are $53,090, according to a November 2004 study by the BLS.

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