Respiratory physiologist

The human respiratory system is responsible for taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide. It is how we breathe.

Respiratory physiologists work directly with patients to deliver diagnostic tests of breathing and treatment of patients with lung disorders, such as asthma and cystic fibrosis. They are also involved with assessing patient’s fitness for surgery and other treatments. They see patients from other specialities like cardiology, thoracic surgery and clinical oncology.

They use different techniques and equipment to investigate respiratory problems and to perform a variety of routine and highly complex diagnostic tests. They assess all aspects of lung functions.

Measurements may include:

  • spirometry
  • lung volumes
  • respiratory gas exchange
  • allergy testing
  • blood gases
  • breathing during sleep
  • response to exercise
  • response to treatment

These test results help with the diagnosis of lung disease to identify treatment regimes, measure the effects of treatment and estimate likely risks during surgery.

My name is Shaun and I'm a respiratory physiologist at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.

"Ok, big breath in and blow fast. Keep going, keep going, keep going...".

We do a variety of different tests, depending on what the doctors have asked for - lung capacity measurements, sometimes it's exercise testing, sometimes it's gas transfer, sometimes it's total lung capacity.

So, we use lots of different equipment, from spirometers, which are simple volume measuring devices, to more complex pieces of equipment that involve gas analysis and use of gas cylinders, to exercise equipment - exercise bikes [and] body plethysmographs.

You have to have an interest in physiology and science, I would say, and an interest in working with people, because that's quite important. It's not something we're just doing to the patients, the patients are heavily involved in the results we get.

I think the NHS is a great place for me to work because [there are] lots of different things that are going on and you have access to a lot of different types of tests. You can contribute to a doctor's research or you can even come up with your own research projects. So, [there are] always opportunities to develop professionally and that's what I like most about the job.

Starting your career

Choosing subjects at school

To become a respiratory physiologist, you need a good standard of education. Useful subjects include:

  • Chemistry
  • English
  • Human Biology
  • Maths
  • Physics

A Foundation Apprenticeship in Social Services and Healthcare, taken in S5 or S6, could give you valuable work experience.

Work placement

If you’re at school or thinking of changing career, doing a work placement could help you when applying to college, university or for a job in healthcare. You’ll learn new skills, improve your knowledge and discover what it’s like to work in the health service. Find out how to apply for work experience with the NHS.

College and university

Most universities accept a wide range of qualifications, giving you the option of applying directly from school or going to college first.

Widening participation supports adult learners who want to go to university. If you’re an adult with few or no qualifications, you can get into higher education through the Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP). Many universities also provide access programmes to help you get the degree entry qualifications you need.

To become a respiratory physiologist, you must complete a recognised degree programme. In Scotland, there are several ways you can enter the profession.

Trainee respiratory physiologist positions will usually be advertised on the NHS show website. Trainees without a relevant degree will be employed by the hospital and enrolled on the Glasgow Caledonian University BSc Clinical Physiology (Hons) degree programme (PTP). Training consists of in-house training within the department and 2 days per week at university for 4 years in total.

Trainee applicants who do have a relevant degree can be trained in house and put through the Association for Respiratory Technology and Physiology (ARTP) exams so that they can gain equivalence to the PTP programme.

On graduation, respiratory physiologists are expected to be registered with the Academy of Healthcare Science (AHCS).

For more information on related further and higher education courses, search My World of Work. You should check specific entry requirements before applying.

The role

As a respiratory physiologist, you will work with patients who have a variety of issues, such as:

  • coughs
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • airway problems
  • shortage of sleep
  • blood oxygenation problems
  • chest wall issues

You will work with patients by performing tests. Communication skills are important as you will need to encourage the patient to perform different breathing manoeuvres as part of the test procedure. These may be done while they are resting or during exercise using a variety of skills, techniques and equipment.

You will report on your test results and the results will help doctors make a diagnosis. You may also assess how the patient will respond to treatment. You’ll teach patients how to use devices for treatment, including inhalers, home nebulisers and CPAP machines.

Respiratory disorders include:

  • asthma
  • fibrosis
  • emphysema
  • respiratory muscle disease
  • pulmonary vascular disorders
  • obstructive sleep apnoea

You might also help patients cope with long-term treatment and care. This could include administering oxygen, ventilation or their medication.

What you’ll do

Your main tasks include:

  • setting up and calibrating equipment ready for use
  • performing quality control procedures to make sure equipment is measuring accurately
  • investigating a range of problems including breathing difficulties, abnormal chest x-rays or sleep disorders
  • carrying out procedures such as pulmonary function tests, exercise testing and bronchial challenge testing
  • performing special sweat tests to diagnose cystic fibrosis
  • interpreting data from tests and reporting on results from these to medical staff
  • helping patients with long term treatments

You will also be working with extremely expensive equipment that must be handled with care.

Top skills

You’ll need these skills:

  • caring for people
  • collaborating with people
  • decision-making
  • leadership skills
  • problem-solving
  • working in a team

In addition, you will need good communication skills and a sympathetic approach when working with patients of all ages and abilities.

Who you’ll work with

You could work with:

  • specialist nurses
  • doctors
  • physiotherapists
  • physiologists from other disciplines

Working environment

You could work in:

  • outpatient clinics
  • wards
  • respiratory physiology department

Useful information

To work as a respiratory physiologist in NHSScotland, you’ll need to:

Did you know?

Although most respiratory physiologists work within the NHS, other opportunities do exist within Her Majesty’s Forces, university research, government departments and the private sector.

Learning and development

Once a registered respiratory physiologist, there are ongoing requirements for education and skills development. You’ll also have lots of opportunities to go further and learn more.

Staff can access various leadership courses run through NHS Education for Scotland (NES), such as Foundation in Leadership course. There are also courses for staff interested in training others. These include:

The ARTP run several courses covering more specialist investigations, such as respiratory muscle assessments and cardiopulmonary exercise tests.

Experienced respiratory physiologists can apply for the Equivalence programme through the AHCS to be a registered clinical scientist. Successful completion will help with career progression.

Career progression

With training and experience, you could move into a supervisory or management role. If you become head of the department, you would be responsible for a team of staff and for managing a budget.

There are also openings in research and teaching.

Some respiratory physiologists might go on to focus on specialist areas, such as:

  • sleep physiology
  • pre-operative cardiopulmonary exercise

For staff working within sleep physiology, there are additional qualifications to be completed, such as:

  • Registered Polysomnographic Technologist (RPSGT) Certificate
  • European Sleep and Respiratory Society (ESRS) examination in Sleep Medicine