If you have considered working in an allied health field, you may be particularly interested in diagnostic medical sonography. Sonographers (or ultrasound technicians) work one-on-one with patients managing imaging technologies like X-rays and MRIs. They can earn a higher salary than that of other health care workers with similar levels of training, and significant job growth is expected over the next decade. Read on to find out more about the day-to-day duties of a sonographer and how to get started in this field.
What do Medical Sonographers do?
Sonography is the use of sound waves to generate an image for the assessment and diagnosis of various medical conditions. Though it is most commonly associated with obstetrics, sonography is used as diagnostic aid in many circumstances.
A sonographer is the technician who operates the equipment, called a transducer, and records the results for interpretation by a physician. The process begins with the sonographer talking with the patient and recording any medical history that may be relevant. The sonographer then ultimately uses imaging technology to project a live view of a patients' internal tissue.
Though sonographers are not qualifed to diagnose, they do make preliminary judgments based on the images and select which of these images to show to a physician.
Many sonographers also have clerical duties such as preparing work schedules, evaluating equipment purchases and/or managing a sonography/ultrasound department.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 59 percent of sonographers are employed in hospitals, while the rest work in physicians' offices or diagnostic laboratories. Some sonographers also travel with imaging service providers.
Are There Different Types of Medical Sonographers?
Because sonography is used on so many different areas of the body, most sonographers choose to specialize in one or more areas. These include: obstetric/gynecologic sonographers, who study the female reproductive system; abdominal sonographers, who inspect organs such as the gallbladder, bile ducts, kidneys, liver, pancreas, spleen and the male reproductive system; neurosonographers, who study the nervous system and the brain; breast sonographers who aid in mammography in order to detect breast cancer, track tumors, monitor blood supply conditions, and assist in biopsy of breast tissue; and vascular and cardiac sonographers, who study the heart and blood vessels.
How do I Become a Medical Sonographer?
There are multiple avenues to becoming a medical sonographer, including formal education from a college, university, or hospital; technical training at a vocational school; or training in the armed forces. No state requires formal certification for medical sonographers; however, certifying bodies exist, most notably the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS), and many employers prefer certified sonographers because they have been held to a regulated standard. A sonographer can qualify to sit for the exam through formal education or work experience.
If you choose formal education, the types of programs available are:
Associate Degree - These two-year programs are offered at various colleges, and are the most prevalent degree. They also make up the majority of the 150 accredited programs nationwide. Coursework includes anatomy, physiology, instrumentation, physics, patient care, and medical ethics.
Bachelor's Degree - A few four-year sonography training programs exist at colleges and universities, but they are much less common than associate programs. These programs are also accredited.
Vocational Certificate - Some vocational/technical schools offer one-year training programs in sonography, and some employers accept this as sufficient education. This avenue is mainly recommended for professionals who are already employed in the health field and seeking training in ultrasound to increase their marketability. A certificate may not be the best way to get started in the field.
How do I Choose a Program?
Accreditation - The accrediting body for medical sonography programs is the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health/Education Programs (CAAHEP). The CAAHEP has accredited 150 programs, including those offered by colleges and universities, as well as some hospital training programs. Find the complete list of accredited programs by searching here http://www.caahep.org/Find-An-Accredited-Program/. Though attending an accredited program is not the only way to become a medical sonographer, it does automatically qualify graduates to sit for the certifying exam and is universally recognized by employers.
Admissions Requirements - Make sure to research the admissions requirements of programs that interest you. Vocational, associate and bachelor's programs may specific courses in math, health, and/or sciences.
Career Goals/ Specialization - Because specialization is so common in sonography, be sure that your program of choice offers your desired specialty. Vascular and cardiac sonography are two particularly specialized programs that not all schools offer.
Curriculum - Look over the program curriculum and make sure that yours provides plenty of hands-on experience. Because sonography is a very hands-on, technical profession, this might be the most important part of your education.
What is the Job Outlook for Sonographers?
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical sonography jobs should grow 18 percent between 2008 and 2018, much faster than average. This is due to an aging population and the increased use of ultrasound technology as a safe alternative to radiological procedures. Uses for ultrasound technology are also expected to expand in the future.
Salary - According to the BLS, the median salary for medical sonographers is $61,980. This salary is higher than the average for allied health professionals with similar training.
Career Advancement - Advancement is possible by adding sonography specializations in order to increase your marketability. Also, taking on administrative duties, such as managing a department, can increase your earning potential. Also according to the BLS, the top 10 percent of sonographers make over $83,950.
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