Ultrasound Tech and Sonography Career Information
Doctors can't diagnose their patients without solid evidence of illness or other medical conditions. Nor can they easily track the progression of certain diseases or determine the status of some pregnancies unless they are able to see what is happening inside their patients' bodies. Although surgical procedures and x-ray technologies are useful for some of these purposes, they can also be costly and dangerous to patients. That's why sonography (i.e., the use of ultrasound technology) is a popular alternative for safely and non-invasively viewing the internal anatomy of medical patients. And that's also why sonography has become such a popular career choice among those wanting to enter the field of healthcare.
What is Sonography?
Pregnancy is likely the first thing that most people think of when they hear the word "ultrasound." But, although ultrasound technology is frequently used to view developing fetuses inside the bellies of pregnant women, it also has many other uses. So, what is sonography?
In the healthcare field, sonography (sometimes called "ultrasonography") is the process of sending pulses of high-frequency sound into a specific area of a patient's body, capturing the echoes as the sound bounces back, and interpreting the resulting images that an ultrasound machine produces and displays on-screen. The instrument that is pressed against a patient's body is called an ultrasound transducer. It emits the sound waves and captures the echoes.
Three general areas make up the field of sonography: (1) diagnostic medical sonography, (2) diagnostic cardiac sonography, and (3) vascular sonography. The first of these areas is the broadest. So, what is diagnostic medical sonography?
Diagnostic medical sonography generally involves the use of ultrasound technology in sub-specialties that include abdominal, neurologic, breast, obstetric/gynecologic, or small-parts sonography.
In contrast, diagnostic cardiac sonography (also called echocardiography) involves producing sonographic images of a patient's heart, with sub-specialties in adult echocardiography, pediatric echocardiography, and fetal echocardiography.
Vascular sonography is the use of ultrasound technology to examine a patient's blood vessels.
What is a Sonographer? (Is It Different from an Ultrasound Tech?)
Because doctors are incredibly busy and prefer to spend their time diagnosing and treating patients, they often need other professionals to conduct the routine exams that help them do that. The people who perform ultrasound exams are one type of such professionals. So, what is a sonographer?
In the field of healthcare, a sonographer is someone who uses ultrasound equipment to examine a specific area inside a patient's body (as directed by a physician). Sonographers produce images that are used by doctors to help diagnose or track their patients' medical conditions.
A sonographer is the same thing as an ultrasound tech. There is no difference. In fact, depending on their place of employment and special area of practice, sonographers can have job titles such as:
- Diagnostic medical sonographer
- Ultrasound technologist
- Ultrasound technician
- Diagnostic cardiac sonographer
- Cardiac sonographer
- Echocardiographic technician
- Vascular sonographer
What Does a Sonographer Do?
Sonography isn't just about scanning the bellies of pregnant women all day. Even ultrasound techs who specialize in that area of practice must perform additional duties beyond the actual exams. So, what does a sonographer do?
Sonographers use special equipment to produce and record images showing the shape, motion, and composition of a patient's internal anatomy, which can include organs and other bodily tissues, blood, abnormal masses, and fluid accumulations. They generally have responsibilities such as:
- Preparing and maintaining sonographic imaging equipment
- Accurately recording a patient's medical history
- Explaining ultrasound or echocardiographic procedures to a patient and answering any questions
- Transferring a patient to an appropriate exam table and positioning him or her properly for the procedure
- Scrubbing a patient's skin in the area to be examined
- Applying the gel that aids the ability of sound waves to show the inside of a patient's body
- Making necessary adjustments to ultrasound equipment during an exam in order to produce the best images for a doctor's use in diagnosis
- Altering the position of a patient to get the best angle
- Analyzing sonographic images for quality
- Identifying any differences between normal and abnormal areas
- Deciding whether or not to extend the scope of an exam based on initial findings
- Detailing preliminary findings for a patient's doctor
- Maintaining detailed patient records
The specific areas of patient anatomy that sonographers examine depend on their chosen sub-specialties, which can include:
- Abdominal—anything in the abdominal cavity, including nearby organs
- Breast—breast tissue and tumors
- Neurologic—the brain and nervous system
- Obstetric/gynecologic—the female reproductive system and pregnancies
- Musculoskeletal—muscles, ligaments, joints, and tendons
- Cardiac—the heart
- Vascular—blood vessels
Where Can a Sonographer Work?
Sonographers mostly work in hospitals, but they can also be found in doctors' offices, diagnostic laboratories, and outpatient medical care centers. Their work environment is usually a room dedicated to medical imaging; however, they are also sometimes called to perform exams at patient bedsides.
What are the Ultrasound Tech Requirements I Should Know About?
The ultrasound tech requirements you should be aware of before pursuing a career in sonography are fairly straightforward. Here are the most important points to keep in mind about the credentials you'll need:
- A formal post-secondary education is generally required in order to become a sonographer.
- Most ultrasound technologists possess associate's degrees from the successful completion of a diagnostic medical sonography program. (You should note that diagnostic cardiac sonography and vascular sonography are usually separate programs.) It is also possible to earn a bachelor's degree in this field. In addition, certificate and diploma programs also exist, but they are usually meant for people who already possess a degree in a related healthcare field.
- Employers in this field generally only want to hire sonographers with professional certification.
- Some states require medical sonographers to be licensed. This usually requires professional certification, but requirements vary from state to state.
Here is what you should know about professional certification:
- When it comes to diagnostic medical sonography, the most-recognized certification organizations are the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) and the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT).
- In order to become certified, you must meet prerequisite requirements to qualify for the chance to take one or more exams, and then you must pass those exams.
- If you choose the most common path to becoming a certified sonographer, then you will have to ensure that the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) accredits the post-secondary program you choose.
- The ARDMS offers certification exams to become a Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer (RDMS), a Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer (RDCS), or a Registered Vascular Technologist (RVT).
- If you choose to become certified through the ARDMS, you will have to choose one or more sub-specialties to be tested on. As a Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer (RDMS), for example, you can be certified in one or more of the following areas: Abdomen (AB), Breast (BR), Fetal Echocardiography (FE), Neurosonology (NE), or Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN).
- For diagnostic cardiac sonography or vascular sonography, the most common certifying organizations are the ARDMS and Cardiovascular Credentialing International (CCI).
- Staying professionally certified requires continuing education.
In addition to the necessary official credentials, you will need to have certain personal and professional traits. Successful medical sonographers tend to possess soft skills and characteristics such as:
- A cooperative attitude
- Strong attention to detail
- Good hand-eye coordination
- Honesty and integrity
- Compassion for other people
- The ability to maintain composure in stressful situations
- Good independent judgment and problem-solving abilities
- Strong active listening and verbal communication skills
- Physical and emotional stamina
- Good organization and time-management skills
- The ability to establish and maintain effective interpersonal relationships
- Experience and comfort with using computers
- A strong interest in cutting-edge technology
- The willingness to follow established procedures
- The ability to lift or move patients and heavy equipment (usually on wheels)
What is the Typical Ultrasound Tech Salary?
It can be difficult to know what you are likely to make as an ultrasound tech. Salary for this occupation depends a lot on geographic location, type of employer, part-time or full-time status, and level of experience. In general, though, the typical sonography salary provides a pretty good living when you consider the relatively low educational requirements. So, how much does an ultrasound tech make?
Based on national estimates from 2010, typical annual wages for sonographers break down this way: *
- The bottom 10 percent earned $44,900 or less.
- Median wages were $64,380.
- The top 10 percent earned $88,490 or more.
The median sonographer salary (or total wages) from 2011 was a bit higher: $65,210. * Half of employed sonographers earned more than this; half earned less.
What are the Pros and Cons of Being a Diagnostic Medical Sonographer?
Many people tend to glorify diagnostic medical sonography without understanding what working in this field is really like. They see movies and TV shows with beautiful characters using ultrasound machines to scan the bellies of other attractive characters. Or they hear through a friend of a friend that sonography is one of the most satisfying careers in healthcare. The problem with glamorizing this field is that, in reality, sonographers experience good and bad days at work just like everyone else.
Overall, sonographers do tend to enjoy their jobs. But it's important to ground your expectations in the actual benefits and challenges of this career path. Here are the some of the most common upsides and downsides of working in diagnostic medical sonography:
- Personal satisfaction from helping other people—Sonographers feel good knowing that they provide a service that enables doctors to more easily help the patients they examine.
- Fascinating interactions with a diversity of patients—It can be fun meeting a variety of different people with interesting stories to share.
- Physical activity—Unlike desk jobs, sonographers often get to move around a lot as part of their work.
- Cool technology—Sonographers get to use some of the most advanced technologies in healthcare, which means there is always something new to learn.
- Exposure to pathogens, bad smells, and bodily fluids—There is no getting around the fact that dealing with medical patients sometimes involves being exposed to things that can cause a little queasiness or actually make you sick.
- Being on-call and working odd shifts—Hospitals often require sonographers to work undesirable shifts, including nights and weekends, while also making them available to come in during their off time in case there is an emergency need for their services.
- Physical demands—Sonographers tend to be on their feet a lot, sometimes have to lift heavy patients or move heavy equipment, and also must repetitively extend and move their arms during exams, which can all take a physical toll.
- A highly competitive job market—The popularity of sonography as a career choice means that there is a lot of competition for the available jobs, which can make it very difficult in some locations to find work.
Can You Tell Me How to Become an Ultrasound Tech?
If you want to know how to become an ultrasound tech, then you need to understand the most common ways to go about it while keeping a number of important things in mind.
Here are the most common paths to becoming a professionally certified sonographer:
- Successfully completing any post-secondary sonography program (typically an associate's degree program) that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), followed by taking and passing the necessary certifying exams from the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS)
- Obtaining a bachelor's degree in sonography, followed by taking and passing the appropriate exams from the ARDMS
- Graduating from a two-year health education program related to patient care, followed by at least 12 months of full-time clinical experience in sonography, followed by taking and passing the necessary exams from the ARDMS
Additional paths to professional certification exist for those with special circumstances. Plus, you can also earn certification through the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT).
Here are some other things to consider about becoming an ultrasound tech:
- If you want the smoothest path to professional certification (not to mention the best shot at landing a sonography job), then it is practically essential that the program you choose for your education is CAAHEP-accredited. Don't just take a school's word for it. Get it in writing.
- Accredited associate's degree programs usually provide the best value for newcomers to the field of sonography who have no previous healthcare education or experience.
- Certificate and diploma programs in ultrasound technology are generally only useful to existing healthcare professionals who want to expand their skill sets or move into a slightly different career.
- Many popular sonography programs have a waiting list of potential students, so some schools have stringent filtering systems in place that include things like entrance exams and point systems for certain kinds of work experience or previous education.
- It is crucial that the sonography program you choose includes a heavy emphasis on the real-world clinical aspects of the field so that you don't graduate with book smarts only.
- Depending on your location and the state of the local job market, it might take a long time to land your first sonography job. Persistence is key. But you also may have to relocate. So flexibility is also essential.
How Long is Ultrasound Tech School?
The answer to this question depends on the type of school you want to attend as well as the credential you want to graduate with. Plus, many schools with diagnostic medical sonography programs require students to meet several course prerequisites before even being considered for admission. So, how long is ultrasound tech school?
Associate degree programs in sonography are the most common and usually take from 18 to 24 months to complete. Of course, if your school requires a substantial number of prerequisites, then you may be looking at an additional one to two years before even starting the program. Not all schools have such requirements, though, so it's important to check when comparing programs.
Bachelor's degree programs are typically designed to last about four years.
If you already have a degree in a related healthcare field, then you can likely get away with taking a shorter degree or certificate program, which usually lasts 18 months or less.
How Much Does a Sonography Education Cost?
The cost of an education in diagnostic medical sonography can vary greatly depending on factors like the type of post-secondary school and academic credential you choose. Total costs for an ultrasound tech program can range from as little as about $4,000 to $60,000 or more.
The difference in cost is sometimes associated with a difference in the nature of a school's on-site practice labs and equipment. But it is best to visit the schools you are most interested in to compare their instructors and facilities.
Most schools can help you obtain financial assistance if you qualify.
What Can I Learn in a Diagnostic Medical Sonography Program?
Accredited programs in diagnostic medical sonography vary a little bit in the structure of their course curriculums and prerequisites, but they usually include subject areas such as:
- Verbal and written communications
- General psychology and human behavior
- Basic physics
- General human anatomy and physiology
- Medical terminology
- Cross-sectional anatomy
- Pathophysiology related to sonography
- Medical ethics and law
- Patient care
- Acoustical physics and instrumentation
- Abdominal ultrasound techniques
- Obstetrical ultrasound techniques
- Gynecological ultrasound techniques
- Small parts ultrasound techniques
Some diagnostic medical sonography programs also cover the basics of echocardiography and vascular sonography.
In addition to the above classroom components, accredited sonography programs also include one or more clinical practicums in real-world ultrasound work settings. These are essential for developing your practical skills in patient care, problem solving, and using ultrasound equipment to produce diagnostic images that a doctor can use.
Do Ultrasound Techs Have Opportunities for Career Advancement?
Exceptional sonographers with at least three to five years of full-time experience can sometimes advance to the role of a lead sonographer or even director of an ultrasound department. Others choose to become traveling sonographers and work for short stints, on a contract basis, in different locations around the country.
Some experienced sonographers choose to leave the clinical environment and move into healthcare consulting, sales, equipment manufacturing, or teaching.
What is the Job Outlook for Diagnostic Medical Sonographers?
The job outlook for diagnostic medical sonographers depends a lot on the locations in which they choose to seek work. Because sonography is such a popular career choice, many job markets are very competitive. Overall, though, employment of sonographers is expected to increase by 44 percent between 2010 and 2020, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. *
Much of the growth in sonography is due to the fact that ultrasound technology is increasingly being seen as a good alternative to more costly and invasive diagnostic procedures. It is also being used in more and more doctors' offices, diagnostic labs, and outpatient care settings.
Experienced sonographers who maintain professional certification in multiple sub-specialties will continue to have the best job prospects.
How Can I Get Started?
It can be very beneficial to job shadow a working ultrasound tech for a day or two if you can arrange the opportunity. That way, you can see up close whether this is the type of occupation you really want to pursue. On the other hand, if you are already sure you want to pursue a career in diagnostic medical sonography, then check out the ultrasound tech schools in your area. You could soon be helping medical patients by using some of the coolest technology around.
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, website last accessed on September 27, 2012.
The Occupational Information Network (O*NET), website last accessed on September 27, 2012.
American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS), website last accessed on September 25, 2012.
Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography (SDMS), website last accessed on September 25, 2012.
American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine (AIUM), website last accessed on September 26, 2012.
American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT), website last accessed on September 25, 2012.
Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), website last accessed on September 25, 2012.
Joint Review Committee on Education in Diagnostic Medical Sonography (JRC-DMS), website last accessed on October 2, 2012.