More than 39 million Americans know the value of a respiratory therapist. According to the American Association for Respiratory Care, that is how many people suffer from lung disease. This week—the 25th annual National Respiratory Care Week—shines the spotlight on respiratory therapists and brings awareness to a growing shortage in the field.

“This week, we give special emphasis to the life-saving efforts of respiratory therapists. It is also a time for us to bring awareness to the sometimes overshadowed fact that the vacancy rate for this position is growing and will become a crisis situation if not addressed,” said Richard Oliver, dean of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Health Professions and co-chair of Future Point Summit, a national coalition working to solve the allied health workforce shortage.

According to a 2005 report by the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC), the shortage of respiratory therapists continues to rise. The vacancy rate in hospitals grew from about 6% in 2000 to nearly 9% in 2005. That means a current shortage of nearly 12,000 respiratory therapists.

“Respiratory therapists are often the first line of intervention for patients. They are critical care experts and practitioners with high levels of expertise in the use of life-supporting systems like the mechanical ventilator,” Oliver said.

The US Department of Labor reports that allied health professions represent 60% of the American health care workforce. Half of the fastest growing occupations in 2004 were in the allied health fields. Respiratory therapy represents the area of greatest need with a predicted 32% growth rate in the field by 2012. In addition to the needs in urban areas, the shortage of respiratory therapists in rural areas is also of great concern.