Roles of Respiratory Therapists and Nurses on a Care Team



  • Brief introduction
  • Statement of thesis


  • Difference in training and work qualification for nurses and respiratory therapists
  • Difference in work settings for nurses and respiratory therapists
  • Role of nurses in care team
  • Role of respiratory therapists


  • Brief summary of points
  • Restatement of thesis


Roles of Respiratory Therapists and Nurses on a Care Team

Patient care is a team activity requiring the involvement of members of different professions. The care team is responsible for the patient’s well-being, particularly for patients with chronic conditions and those brought to the emergency room. Therefore, the team involves different members working to help patients regain or improve their health. Although all the members of the health care team are important, some members perform basic tasks involving patient care, before and after the main diagnostic process for the patients. Respiratory therapists and nurses are among these members. They spend more time with patients than the other members of the care team. Over the years, the technological advances and education of the care team members have expanded their roles, making the caregivers more competent in a wider range of skills in the sphere of patient care (Prewitt, 1984). Respiratory therapists and nurses are among the members with a wider range of skills. Many people often see interchangeability in the roles performed by respiratory therapists and nurses. However, given the difference in academic qualification, training, and the skill set each of the two requires before qualification, the roles of respiratory therapists and nurses are distinctly different in the care and improvement of patient outcomes.

Nurses and respiratory therapists are important members of a care team. Each of the two has specialized roles according to their different training allowing them to perform the different roles required by their professions and qualification. The specificity in the roles that the two perform comes from the difference in education and training. In terms of education, respiratory therapists require an associate degree, although some have Bachelor’s. On average, respiratory therapists’ training involves anatomy, physics, chemistry, and microbiology in addition to the supervised clinical experience. On the other hand, VandenBranden (2010) informs that nurses study similar subjects, albeit with a different focus given the role of nurses in caring for the patient as a whole. Nurses’ basic training additionally opens them various options in their career including associate degrees, diploma in nursing or a Bachelor’s degree. Further, nurses’ training puts them in a position wherein they can obtain further education, becoming advanced practice nurses. Training as advanced practice nurses comes with a wider scope of practice including medical and supervisory functions (VandenBranden, 2010).

The difference in training between respiratory therapists and nurses opens them to wider work settings apart from the hospital health care team. Most of the respiratory therapists work in hospitals as part of the hospital care team, however, other opportunities for their expertise may be necessary for outpatient care centers, in-home care and nursing care facilities. The respiratory therapists have the possibility of working night or evening shifts in addition to working weekends and holidays. On the other hand, nurses work in hospitals; however, their qualification accords them the opportunity to work in other areas such as the physician’s office, nursing care facilities, schools, correctional facilities, and home health. Their wider scope of working areas emanates from their training, and, therefore, their expanded role in patient care. Regardless of their training, nurses and respiratory therapists have different roles to play within the patient care team. The roles, while sometimes overlapping, are all important for the comprehensive care of the patient, and for better patient outcomes.

Hutchison et al. (2011) think that the role of nurses in a health team goes far beyond the assumption of them as doctors’ assistants. The authors inform that one of the most important roles of nurses is that of care managers, because nurses in this role ensure that the care given to patients is cohesive and comprehensive. Besides, the role of nurses as care managers involves the coordination of the care provided, ensuring that the patients receive all the care that they need. The needs provided in this case come from both professional and non-professional avenues (Martin-Misener & Bryant-Lukosius, 2014).

Additionally, nurses act as patients’ advocates and play a role in facilitating optimal health for them. In nurses’ capacity as advocates, they ensure that the patients’ rights are protected (Martin-Misener & Bryant-Lukosius, 2014). For instance, nurses in this role have the responsibility of determining the patients’ needs and fulfilling these needs within their (nurses’) stipulated powers. Further, as patients’ advocates, nurses are the mediators between doctors and patients, as well as among patients and families. Nurses, therefore, help in coordinating among doctors, physicians, and other members of the care team (Martin-Misener & Bryant-Lukosius, 2014). They ensure cohesion within the team as well as awareness among the patients and the family. The latter should know the progress of the patient as well as their needs as stipulated by the doctor and other members of the care team.

Perhaps, the most important role of the nurse within the care team is caregiving. According to Hutchison et al. (2011), patients receive care according to their needs and requirements in relation to the stage of illness. In this light, while some patients may require total care, others may require only minimal supervision. As members of the care team, nurses interpret patient information and assessment data to help them make decisions on the care required by the patient, and, thus, the action necessary for the situation. As caregivers, nurses have the responsibility of providing holistic care to the patient with the goal of assisting patients to reach their spiritual, emotional, social, spiritual, or cognitive goals. Besides, the assessment ensures that nurses can then coordinate with different members of the care team, keeping them informed on the patient’s progress while at the same time making suggestions on the best course of action in improving the patient’s outcomes.

Moreover, caregiving for nurses extends to implementing the physician’s orders. The role of implementing physician’s orders includes giving medication, changing the dressing as well as assessing the patient’s response to the treatment prescribed by the doctor (Martin-Misener & Bryant-Lukosius, 2014). Providing patient follow-up, nurses report the progress to the physician for reactive action including continuation with the prescription or changing it to a different treatment plan. For example, nurses inform the physician of the patient’s reaction to a drug, be it an allergy or side effects for recourse.

Nurses are additional teachers within the healthcare team. In the role of teachers, nurses help patients get information on their health condition and medication. According to Martin-Misener & Bryant-Lukosius (2014), nurses help patients with procedures and prescription intakes. Nurses perform this role in coordination with the health care team to help patients in gaining knowledge on the management of their own health. As part of the health care team, nurses address issues such as lifestyle changes and choice (in this case with the help of nutritionists and counselors), coping with diagnosis in addition to patient’s understanding of warning signs and symptoms of emergent health concerns. Nurse’s roles are wide and varied; they are largely dependent on the setting and specialization of the nurse.

On the other hand, respiratory therapists mostly focus on the care of patients with cardiopulmonary disorders. Hutkin (2015) informs that respiratory therapists majorly work with patients with disorders such as cardiac arrest, lung trauma, asthma, and emphysema. However, the work of the respiratory therapists is not confined to these disorders, other life-threating conditions call for their service too (Hutkin, 2015). Their skills and knowledge of the operation of breathing machines in the emergency room makes the respiratory therapists invaluable members of the healthcare team.

The role of respiratory therapists as part of the healthcare team is especially important for patients with respiratory disorders, or other conditions that strain the respiratory system. The respiratory therapists spend considerable amount of time doing breathing tests, which assist accurate diagnosis of respiratory disorders (Hutkin, 2015). Moreover, respiratory therapists develop, apply and monitor new diagnostic and therapeutic procedures. Their role as part of the healthcare team additionally includes participation in research aimed at improvement of health and prevention of diseases as well as collaborative investigation involving patients with respiratory disorders. Besides having a research role, respiratory therapists work in the intensive care units and emergency departments, where they majorly maintain and operate breathing machines for patients with breathing difficulties. Indeed, respiratory assistants help keep patients alive by ensuring that patients breath, particularly those that cannot breathe on their own.

The role of respiratory therapists as part of the healthcare team transcends the hospital to outpatient clinics, ambulances, emergency evacuation services as well as home services. In such settings, respiratory therapists provide oxygen and aerosolized medications (Hutkin, 2015). Their role and specialty in respiration allows them to work in the pediatric sections, providing care for a premature and full-term infant with breathing difficulties. In pediatrics, respiratory therapists help manage oxygenation devices, help with intubations, and attend to deliveries, in addition to the transportation of children between hospitals (Hutkin, 2015).

Like nurses, respiratory therapists play the teaching role too. Respiratory therapists’ role as teachers involves patient education and enhancing patient self-management, in addition to the management of care. According to the European Lung White Book (2016), studies show that respiratory therapists are important in providing a link between the hospital and community. Besides, the studies indicate that respiratory therapists have a role to play in providing effective guides for self-management for asthma patients (European Lung White Book, 2016). The role of respiratory therapists as educators is especially important in helping patients focus on identification, early intervention and management for the care of COPD patients ((European Lung White Book, 2016).

Nurses and respiratory therapists are a part of the larger group of healthcare management teams. Each of the two has roles to play for the benefit of patients and enhancing their health outcomes. Although some may not see the necessity of respiratory therapists, they have equally important roles to play in enhancing care for the patients. The roles played by nurses and respiratory therapists are distinct, and, while some may be similar such as patient education, the content of the education is entirely different. As part of the care team, therefore, respiratory therapists and nurses hold integral positions for the overall success of the team and positive patient outcomes.



(2016). European Lung White Book. European Respiratory Society.

Hutchison, B. et al. (2011). Primary health care in Canada: Systems in motion. The Milbank Quarterly, 89(2), 256-288.

Hutkin, E. (2015). Respiratory therapists: ‘Unsung heroes’ help patients breathe easier. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from–tms–careercarer-b20150208-20150208-story.html.

Martin-Misener, R. & Bryant-Lukosius, D. (2014). Optimizing the roles of nurses in primary care in Canada. Ottawa, Canadian Nurses Association.

Prewitt, M., W. (1984). Role expectations of the respiratory therapy practitioner as reported by the role incumbent and other health care professionals. Respiratory Care, 29(9), 900-904.

VandenBranden, S., L., et al. (2010). The role of the nurse practitioner in the care of children with chronic respiratory disorders. Pediatric Annals, 39(12), 800-4. doi: