Ultrasound Tech and Sonography FAQ
What is Sonography?
Pregnancy is likely the first thing you think of when you hear the word "ultrasound." But, although this technology is frequently used to view developing babies inside the womb, it also has many other uses.
In the healthcare field, sonography (also 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 a transducer. It emits the sound waves and captures the echoes.
Three Main Areas
- Diagnostic Medical Sonography—Generally involves sub-specialties that include abdominal, neurologic, breast, obstetric/gynecologic, or small-parts sonography
- Diagnostic Cardiac Sonography—Also called echocardiography. Involves producing sonographic images of a patient's heart, with sub-specialties in adult, pediatric, and fetal echocardiography
- Vascular Sonography—Used to examine a patient's blood vessels
What are the Different Job Titles?
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, they can also have job titles such as:
- Diagnostic medical sonographer
- Ultrasound technologist
- Ultrasound technician
- Diagnostic cardiac sonographer
- Cardiac sonographer
- Echocardiographic technician
- Vascular sonographer
What are the Job Responsibilities?
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:
Before the Exam
- Preparing and maintaining imaging equipment
- Accurately recording a patient's medical history
- Explaining 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 gel that aids the ability of sound waves to show the inside of a patient's body
During the Exam
- Making necessary adjustments to 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 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
After the Exam
- 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 belly area, 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
What are the Most Common Workplaces?
They mostly work in hospitals, but they can also be found in:
- Doctors' offices
- Diagnostic laboratories
- 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 Requirements I Should Know About?
The 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.
- Most 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 programs are usually separate.)
- 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.
Certification and Licensing
- Employers in this field generally prefer to hire people with professional certification.
- Some states require licensure. This usually requires professional certification, but requirements vary from state to state.
Becoming Professionally Certified
Here is what you should know about professional certification:
Know the Organizations
- The most-recognized certification organizations are the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS), the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT), and the Cardiovascular Credentialing International (CCI).
- 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).
Choose Your Sub-specialties
- If you choose to become certified through the ARDMS, you will get to choose one or more sub-specialties to be tested on. As an 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).
Pass the Exams and Stay Certified
- In order to become certified, you must meet a few basic prerequisite requirements (such as having a relevant degree), and then you'll need to pass one or more exams.
- Staying professionally certified requires ongoing continuing education.
Are there Opportunities for Career Advancement?
These with at least three to five years of full-time experience can 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 choose to leave the clinical environment and become professionals like:
- Healthcare consultants
- Medical equipment sales representatives
- Medical equipment manufacturing consultants
What is the Typical Salary?
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 good living. In fact, ultrasound technicians have one of America's highest paying jobs without a degree requiring more than about two years of school.
Based on national estimates from May 2015, typical annual wages break down this way: *
- Median wages were $68,970.
- The highest-earning 10 percent made $97,390 or more.
What is the Job Outlook?
The job outlook is bright. In fact, employment of sonographers is expected to increase by 24 percent between 2014 and 2024, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.**
Much of the growth 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 professionals who maintain certification in multiple sub-specialties will continue to have the best job prospects.
Can You Tell Me How to Start in this Field?
Here are the three most common paths to becoming a certified professional:
- Successfully completing a diploma or associate's degree program followed by taking and passing professional certification exams from the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) or the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT)
- Obtaining a bachelor's degree, followed by taking and passing the appropriate certification exams
- 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
How Long are Most Programs?
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, some schools may have a few course prerequisites to meet before you can get started.
Diploma and associate degree programs are the most common and usually take from 18 to 24 months to complete. Of course, if your school requires any prerequisites, then you may be looking at up to an additional one to two years before you start the main program. Not all schools have such requirements, though, so it's a good idea 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 may have the option to take a shorter degree or certificate program, which usually lasts 18 months or less.
What Can I Learn in School?
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
- Medical ethics and law
- Patient care
- Acoustical physics and instrumentation
- Abdominal techniques
- Obstetrical techniques
- Gynecological techniques
- Small parts techniques
Some diagnostic medical sonography programs also cover the basics of echocardiography and vascular sonography.
In addition to the above classroom components, accredited programs also include one or more clinical practicums in real-world ultrasound work settings.
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, website last accessed on April 15, 2016.
** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, website last accessed on February 17, 2016.
The Occupational Information Network (O*NET), website last accessed on August 5, 2015.
American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS), website last accessed on August 5, 2015.
Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography (SDMS), website last accessed on August 5, 2015.
American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine (AIUM), website last accessed on August 5, 2015.
American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT), website last accessed on August 5, 2015.
Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), website last accessed on August 5, 2015.
Joint Review Committee on Education in Diagnostic Medical Sonography (JRC-DMS), website last accessed on August 5, 2015.