New partnership aims to boost number of respiratory therapists

Published: May. 24, 2023 at 7:06 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A new partnership aims to recruit more respiratory therapists in a field deemed essential but often overlooked.

Students have been able to get trained as respiratory therapists in Vermont for years, but now a new partnership between Vermont State University and the UVM Health Network is trying to match more people to the profession.

“It is rewarding work, absolutely,” said Ryan Kessler, who saw a need in the health care workforce after coming out of the military and decided to sign on as a respiratory therapist. “Respiratory therapists are driving around our community, visiting our patients at home. They’re in the community hospitals giving nebulizer treatments. They’re giving inhalers. They’re assisting in pulmonary function labs and respiratory therapists are at the bedside of our sickest adult patients in the intensive care units, right down to the smallest, most vulnerable baby who was born early, who needs a breathing tube -- and is actually on a ventilator -- and we’re there to care for them.”

Years later, Kessler helps train students at the University of Vermont Medical Center. “As they’re students, they’re actually at the bedside with a registered respiratory therapist and learning hands-on care, how to treat these patients. And it’s simple for care all the way up to those ICU patients,” Kessler said.

“I think the pandemic has shined a lot of light on our profession,” said Kayla Grout, a respiratory educator at Central Vermont Medical Center. “I think people are realizing that there is more to our job than just giving nebulizers, which oftentimes is the assumption that people have.”

It’s a profession Grout and Kessler both say could use more interest, not just in Vermont, but across the country.

“There is a huge shortage nationwide and within our state. We are going through a lot of travelers -- which, they’re all great -- but we also want to have a good base and a good foundation within our hospital. So, I’m really hoping that we get the volume back up,” Grout said.

Jerald Novak with the UVM Health Network says the new partnership will revitalize the existing program. “We really want to drive awareness for this critical career path, and we believe strongly in supporting and enhancing existing programs. It’s a key component of our broader efforts around health care workforce development,” he said.

Novak says students will participate in a two-year program, including clinics. He says there’s a pay-while-you-learn model with flexible work arrangements and financial aid. “There are some scholarships, there’s tuition support, there’s tuition reimbursement. Depends on the individual, their need as well. But ultimately, everybody will be receiving some sort of support within the program.

The Vermont State Colleges tout a 100% job placement rate upon graduation. “We have about 125 respiratory therapists within our network, and that’s across both Vermont and northern New York. Right now, we have about 20 openings. So, we hope that this program will start to put a major dent in that and allow us not to use temporary help of travelers -- as they’re called -- which are very expensive.

Novak says nearly $1.5 million has been invested into the program and that it can accommodate up to 25 students.