By Ellen A. Becker, PhD, RRT-NPS, RPFT, AE-C, FAARC
Consider the following ten questions as you think about where you might want to choose a specialty area in respiratory care. Be open to having several different specialties across the duration of your career, as the respiratory care profession offers a wide variety of opportunities.
Are you at the start of your career?
Most respiratory therapists begin their careers working in acute care settings. The acute care environment offers the opportunity to refine a wide variety of skills that are required for other advanced respiratory care roles. Further, the mentoring essential for continued learning is also readily accessible. After you establish a base of experience, then you can consider your options for specialization.
Do you prefer a fast-paced environment?
If you like dynamic settings where the needs of multiple patients present urgently and decisions must be made quickly, critical care settings are a good choice. Look for work assignments that involve emergency departments, ICU care, and patient transport.
Is there a specific age group that you prefer?
You may prefer working with children and their families. Pediatrics will provide you with a wider range of conditions to treat and developmental stages to master than a neonatal population. Communicating with adults is more comfortable for some, and others want to focus on the elderly population and learn from their wisdom.
Are one-on-one relationships with patients and families important to you?
Although therapists in critical care settings interact with patients and families, individual encounters are much shorter than those in other settings. If you like longer patient encounters and opportunities to see the same patient on multiple occasions, consider working in diagnostics or disease management.
Do you want to influence public policy decisions?
Respiratory therapists have roles in advocacy organizations such as the American Lung Association and other local health care groups. Good ways to develop advocacy skills are to participate in sending messages to Congress through the AARC’s Capitol Connection, serving as your state’s PACT representative, advocating for state and local health care bills, or serving on the board of directors for an advocacy organization.
Is helping colleagues develop to their potential and establishing policies part of your goals?
Supervisory and clinical leader roles provide therapists with an opportunity to teach others and develop policies and procedures. These roles require a solid base of clinical skills and good people skills.
Do you enjoy planning and organizing?
Hospital-based managers influence the services departments provide and design the structures to achieve goals. But you can also consider opportunities available outside the hospital, such as respiratory care marketing and sales manager roles that require planning and organizing skills. Earning an advanced degree and completing the Management track in the AARC’s Leadership Institute is a great place to start.
Do you like working with data?
Collecting, managing, and analyzing data is required for therapists who work in pulmonary diagnostics, quality improvement, management, and research. Therapists who like to pay close attention to detail and have a basic understanding of statistics are well suited to these roles.
Is empowering other therapists something that you value?
Education is a great specialization if you enjoy helping others learn information. Consider roles such as a clinical preceptor, clinical educator, or an educator in an academic institution. Prepare for these roles by having a strong clinical background, completing the AARC’s Clinical PEP course, completing the Education track within the AARC’s Leadership Institute, or pursuing a baccalaureate or master’s degree.
Do you like discovering new information?
Research is another specialization suited to experienced therapists who seek answers to questions that need to be answered to advance respiratory care practice. Additional training is required for this role. The Research track within the AARC’s Leadership Institute or formal graduate coursework is recommended for this role.
Lastly, take advantage of opportunities that present themselves to you in unexpected ways. Volunteerism is a safe way to engage in new roles or environments without a long-term commitment. Sometimes we are not aware of how much we may enjoy working in a different role until we experiment.
Ellen Becker is a professor in the department of cardiopulmonary sciences at Rush University in Chicago, IL, and chair of the AARC’s Education Section.