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Cardiopulmonary Careers: Job Options and Requirements

Oct 20, 2021

Cardiopulmonary careers include respiratory therapists and polysomnographic technologists. In the field of cardiopulmonary medicine, the focus is on diagnosing and treating heart and lung diseases and sleep disorders. A minimum of an associate's degree is required to be a respiratory therapist or polysomnographic technologist.

Essential Information

Cardiopulmonary professionals diagnose and treat heart and lung diseases and sleep disorders. Both respiratory therapists and polysomnographic technologists must hold at least an associate's degree, and licensure or certification is often required.

Respiratory Therapist Polysomnographic Technologist
Required Education Associate's degree Associate's degree
Other Requirements National Board for Respiratory Care license and CPR training Board of Registered Polysomnographic Technologists credentialing
Projected Job Growth (2019-2029)* 19% for respiratory therapists 7% for clinical and lab technicians and technologists
Median Salary (2020)* $62,810 for respiratory therapists $54,180 for clinical and lab technicians and technologists

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,

Career Options

There are quite a few potential career paths that involve cardiopulmonary care, including those of respiratory therapists and polysomnographic technologists. Read more about these two careers below.

Respiratory Therapist

Also known as respiratory care practitioners, respiratory therapists are a type of cardiopulmonary professionals who handle diagnosis and treatment of patients with diseases such as asthma, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) or pneumonia.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of respiratory therapists is expected to grow much faster than average by 19% between the years 2019-2029. In May 2020, about 135,800 respiratory therapists in the U.S. earned a median salary of $62,810.

Respiratory Therapist Duties

Respiratory therapists monitor cardiopulmonary functions in their patients. Beyond logging heart rate and breathing for diagnostic purposes, duties of a respiratory therapist include:

  • Testing patients to determine their lung capacity
  • Taking arterial blood samples to measure pH, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels
  • Performing procedures to facilitate breathing
  • Educating patients on the proper use of aerosol medications.

Requirements for Becoming a Respiratory Therapist

Respiratory therapists need to complete a 2-year associate's degree program. Programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC) or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. Most states require licensure and current cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification to practice respiratory therapy. Licensing requirements are usually based on the standards set by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). Graduates can take the exam offered by the NBRC to become certified respiratory therapists.

To improve chances of advancement, these types of cardiopulmonary professionals can earn a bachelor's degree in respiratory therapy as well. They can also take the NBRC Registered Respiratory Therapist licensing exam.

Polysomnographic Technologist

Cardiopulmonary professionals known as polysomnographic technologists help diagnose sleep disorders. They do this by combining and synthesizing information gathered by various instruments with their own observations to determine the cause of a patient's sleep disorder.

The center for disease control reported in 2008 that 50-70 million people had chronic sleep and wakefulness disorders. According to PayScale.com in 2021, the median expected salary for a registered polysomnographic technologist was $24.84 per hour.

Polysomnographic Technologist Duties

Polysomnographic technologists take instrumental measurements while a patient sleeps to help determine the cause of their sleep disorder. They may measure the electrical potential from the brain, eyes and skeletal muscles. They also measure esophageal pressure, oral and nasal airflow, pH levels and pulse oximetry. Typical duties of a polysomnographic technologist include:

  • Ensuring proper functioning of instruments and conduct continuous monitoring
  • Recognizing sleep stages and wakefulness from instrument readings
  • Noting variations in respiratory effort, air flow and cardiac rate
  • Observing movements and vocalizations
  • Collecting information from patients and ensuring their comfort during sleep studies

Requirements for Becoming a Polysomnographic Technologist

Aspiring polysomnographic technologists usually need to complete a 2-year associate's degree program that is accredited by the Association of Polysomnographic Technologists. They may also be able to complete an associate's degree in another health-related field and complete training in polysomnography. Many employers prefer technologists who have been credentialed by the Board of Registered Polysomnographic Technologists (BRPT). Candidates for the credential must complete education and clinical experience requirements before sitting for the required exam.

Respiratory therapists focus on illnesses that affect the heart and lungs, while polysomnographic technologists perform tests to diagnose sleep disorders. Both positions call for completing an accredited associate's degree program. In most states, respiratory therapists must be licensed, and professional credentialing, while optional, is required by many employers for polysomnographic technologists.

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