Respiratory medicine

Doctors in respiratory medicine diagnose and treat conditions affecting the respiratory (breathing) system, ie the nose, throat (pharynx), larynx, the windpipe (trachea), the lungs and the diaphragm.

Nature of the work

Respiration is defined as the transportation of oxygen from the outside air into body cells within tissues and the movement of carbon dioxide outwards.

Respiratory medicine is mainly an acute hospital-based specialty. A third of all acute medical admissions to hospital are the result of respiratory or breathing problems, making this a busy and varied role.

Respiratory physicians often choose to participate in “medical takes”, where they see patients admitted to hospital with different medical problems, which may not necessarily be respiratory.  In this context you will be practising general medicine, rather than acute respiratory medicine.

They also supervise and initiate non-invasive ventilation for patients with acute type 2 respiratory failure (a serious condition where there are abnormally high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood.)  These patients may be suffering from a wide range of respiratory disorders, including chest infections and pneumothorax (collapsed lung), They provide the necessary support and care for these acutely unwell patients.

Respiratory physicians often work closely with colleagues in the hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU), providing advice since so many acute conditions involve respiratory problems.

Assessing patients in outpatients’ clinics is an important part of the work.  There are two types of clinic: general respiratory clinics and specialist clinics. Patients with asthma and conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are treated in the general clinics.  COPD includes chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive airways disease.

In the general outpatients’ clinics respiratory physicians also see patients referred by GPs with concerning symptoms such as haemoptysis (coughing up blood) and unexplained breathlessness, or who have abnormal chest x-rays.

Respiratory physicians also run lung function laboratories in hospitals, enabling the interpretation of complex lung function testing. Lung function tests are an important part of respiratory medicine, as they can indicate how well a patient’s lungs are functioning and they also assist in diagnosis.

Some respiratory units specialise in particular areas, such as lung transplant, sleep-related medical problems or cystic fibrosis.

Specialist respiratory clinics deal with a range of problems including:

Common procedures/interventions

These include:

The techniques used include:


There are no formally recognised sub specialties, but respiratory medicine has a number of important ‘special interest’ areas such as:

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