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Ultrasound Technician Schools

by Kaitlin Louie

Diagnostic medical sonographers, also known as ultrasound technicians, use ultrasound imaging technology to diagnose and evaluate patients’ medical conditions. Their typical responsibilities include preparing patients for sonographic procedures, taking sonographic images of different parts of patients’ anatomy, and reporting and discussing medical findings with physicians, nurses and other medical staff.

Sonography Ultrasound Technology

Ultrasound technicians typically work full time in various medical settings, such as hospitals, physicians’ offices, and diagnostic medical laboratories. They interact on a regular basis with patients, and generally work with a team of physicians, nurses and other medical staff to monitor patients’ health, identify any potential medical problems, and facilitate timely treatment. As diagnostic medical sonography is a noninvasive and cost-effective procedure, more health care settings are expected to employ ultrasound technicians in the next decade, leading to a projected 44 percent national increase in the employment of diagnostic medical sonographers between 2010 and 2020 (OOH, 2013).

Diagnostic medical sonographers typically require an associate or bachelor’s degree, or a postsecondary certificate in order to practice professionally. Associate and bachelor’s degrees are appropriate for individuals with no prior medical experience, while postsecondary certificates are generally reserved for people who are already in the medical field and wish to expand their responsibilities to include diagnostic medical sonography. Employers typically prefer candidates who have attended an accredited institution (bls.gov, OOH).

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If interested in a career as a diagnostic medical sonographer, the following questions are helpful to consider and investigate:

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What types of diagnostic medical sonography careers exist?

Diagnostic medical sonographers typically specialize in a particular area of the body. According to bls.gov, examples of sonography specialties include:

  • Obstetric and gynecologic sonography—imaging the female reproductive system in order to check for health problems, such as PCOS, ovarian cancer, or endometriosis. OB-GYN sonography is also a common way for pregnant women to monitor the health of their growing baby.
  • Abdominal sonography—creating ultrasound images of patients’ abdominal areas and surrounding organs, including the stomach, kidneys, gallbladder, liver, pancreas and spleen. Abdominal sonographers can help identify a wide range of medical conditions, including liver disorders, cancers of the digestive system, and gallbladder or kidney stones.
  • Breast sonography—the use of ultrasound technology to monitor the health of women’s breast tissues. Sonography is often used to help detect breast cancer and monitor the growth or remission of breast tumors.
  • Neurosonography—imaging patients’ brain and central nervous system. Neurosonographers help diagnose neurological and nervous system problems and disorders in patients.
  • Musculoskeletal sonography—taking images of patients’ muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments in order to evaluate the health of muscles and joints. Musculoskeletal sonographers can help diagnose muscular injuries, joint inflammation and soft tissue tumors.

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How does one become a diagnostic medical sonographer?

While the path to becoming a diagnostic medical sonographer varies from individual to individual, the typical routes include the following.

The general path towards becoming a diagnostic medical sonographer:

  1. Enroll in a diagnostic medical sonography associate/bachelor’s degree program
  2. Investigate different diagnostic medical sonography certification options
  3. Obtain certification through an accredited organization by taking relevant certification exam and fulfilling other requirements
  4. Earn state licensure in diagnostic medical sonography if required in one’s state of residence
  5. Apply for entry-level diagnostic medical sonography jobs
  6. Maintain one’s certifications and (if applicable) state license through continuing education courses and/or certification exams

For professionals already in the medical field who wish to expand their duties to include diagnostic medical sonography:

  1. Enroll in a certificate program at a hospital or vocational college
  2. Investigate different diagnostic medical sonography certification options
  3. Obtain certification(s) through accredited organizations by taking relevant exams and fulfilling other requirements
  4. Earn state licensure in diagnostic medical sonography if required in one’s state of residence

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What sonographer training programs are available?

Diagnostic medical sonography training programs are available at some universities and colleges, as well as vocational and technical schools. Depending on the program, students may earn an associate/bachelor’s degree or certificate in sonography upon completion of the curriculum. Bachelor’s degrees typically take four years to complete, while associate degrees usually take two years. Certificate programs generally require one year to complete.

Associate degrees in sonography are generally suitable for individuals wishing to enter the field of sonography without prior medical experience or education. In contrast, certificate programs are usually reserved for professionals who are already in the medical field, such as registered nurses, and who wish to expand their responsibilities at their job. Employers typically prefer candidates that attend an accredited educational institution or hospital program (OOH, 2013).

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What kinds of courses are a part of diagnostic medical sonography training programs?

Diagnostic medical sonography degree programs and certificates typically educate students about human anatomy and physiology, ultrasound technology and the physics behind it, and the procedures that medical sonographers use on a regular basis. Such programs also generally include clinical training in the form of an ultrasound laboratory class. Examples of ultrasound technician courses include but are not limited to:

  • Human Anatomy and Physiology—the different organ systems in the human body and their functions. Recognizing different body parts and tissues, including structure, function, and possible health issues that sonography can diagnose.
  • Medical Terminology—terms and definitions of important structures in the human body, as well as various medical procedures, treatments and health conditions.
  • Ultrasound Machinery and its Operation—different types of ultrasound equipment, their purpose in various medical settings, and how to operate them.
  • The Physics of Ultrasound—the physics principles behind diagnostic ultrasound, and the application of these principles to medical procedures and diagnoses. Topics covered may include physics fundamentals, the characteristics of sound waves, transducers and their function, how sound waves interact with tissue, and the basics of pulse-echo imaging.
  • Ultrasound Procedures and Protocols—the main ultrasound diagnostic procedures and how to perform them.
  • Vascular Sonography—the vascular system of the human body, how to identify vascular tissue, vessel, and organ abnormalities on a sonographic image.
  • Abdominal Sonography—the abdominal organs and their structure, function and pathology. How to identify certain abdominal organ and vasculature conditions with the help of sonographic images.
  • Gynecologic Sonography—the anatomy, physiology and functionality of the female reproductive system. The different gynecological and reproductive health conditions and how to identify them. How to evaluate the health of a growing fetus in the womb and diagnose any potential health concerns.
  • Ultrasound Physics and Instrumentation Laboratory—implementing sonographic principles and practices in a laboratory environment. Performing sonographic procedures under instructor supervision.tabl

Some ultrasound technician programs also provide specialized courses on ultrasound procedures for different areas of the body.

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How are licensing and certification in sonography different, and are both necessary?

Sonography licensing and certification are two separate credentials. Licensure is typically a requirement that some states, such as Oregon, have for practicing sonographers. Candidates apply to their state’s board of sonography or medical imaging to obtain a license, and licensure requirements typically include certification, proof of education and/or professional experience, and an application fee.

Certification is generally provided by private associations, and it serves to prove that an individual has met certain competency standards in their field. According to bls.gov, employers generally prefer sonographers to be certified. Sonography certification typically involves fulfilling educational requirements and/or taking an exam. For more information about different sonographer certifications and their specifications, please see the next question.

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What certifications are available for diagnostic medical sonographers, and how do I apply for them?

Several associations exist that provide ultrasound technician certifications. Candidates typically only need one certification from a reputable organization, but must often maintain their certification through continuing education courses and recertification exams. The following are examples of associations that offer ultrasound technician certifications:

ARDMS

The American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography, Inc. (ARDMS) is a nonprofit organization that offers different certification options for sonographers of different specialties. To obtain certification with ARDMS, candidates must take both a generalized exam and a specialized exam. The ARDMS offers different options for exam eligibility, which consistently involve completion of certain educational or professional requirements. Please see the chart below for an overview of several different exams that ARDMS provides and what corresponding certifications they offer.

Certification

Required Primary Exam

Required Specialty Exam

Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer (RDMS)

Sonography Principles and Instrumentation (SPI) Exam

Abdomen (AB)

Breast (BR)

Fetal Echocardiography (FE)

Neurosonology (NE)

Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN)

Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer (RDCS)

SPI Exam

Adult Echocardiography (AE)

Fetal Echocardiography (FE)

Pediatric Echocardiography (PE)

Registered Vascular Technologist (RVT)

SPI Exam

Vascular Technology (VT)

Registered in Musculoskeletal (RMSK)

Musculoskeletal Sonography Exam

N/A

Source: American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography, Inc., 2012

The Sonography Principles and Instrumentation (SPI) Exam covers such subjects as patient care, the physics of ultrasound waves and their interactions with human tissue, and the specifics and instrumentation methods for various important ultrasound technologies. Candidates applying for certification with ARDMS must take the SPI exam along with their chosen specialty exam. In order to be eligible for the exam, candidates must complete certain educational and/or professional requirements. Many pathways to eligibility exist, so it is best to check with the ARDMS website for specifics on the SPI and other examinations.

ARRT

The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists is an organization that has been approved by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) to offer certifications in sonography. In order to earn a certification, candidates must complete an accredited educational program within five years of their application, fulfill certain ethics requirements and pass the ARRT examination. The ARRT examination contains questions that test candidates on the following areas: patient care, physical principles of ultrasound, abdominal procedures, gynecological and obstetrical procedures, and other sonographic procedures.

CCI

Cardiovascular Credentaling International offers three different sonography certifications: the Registered Congenital Cardiac Sonographer, the Registered Cardiac Sonographer and the Registered Phlebology Sonographer. Each of these credentials requires a high school diploma, the passing of an examination, and mandatory documentation specified to the desired credential. Further details on requirements for credentialing are available at Cardiovascular Credentialing International’s website.

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What associations are available for diagnostic medical sonographers?

Several sonography associations exist that provide memberships and benefits, which may comprise continuing education courses, access to industry publications, a network of fellow professionals, and/or career resources. Examples of such associations include but are not limited to:

  • American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine is an association established in 1952 that offers membership to doctors, sonographers, researchers and students. Membership benefits include access to the Journal of Ultrasound in Medicine, access to Continuing Medical Education (CME) courses and credits, an online library, a career center, and member events.
  • Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography is an organization that was created in 1970 and offers CME credits, access to the Journal of Diagnostic Medical Sonography, certification preparation materials, insurance options, and engagement with a community of fellow sonographers.
  • Society for Vascular Ultrasound was founded in 1977 and offers career tools, access to the Journal for Vascular Ultrasound, and a mentoring program to its members.

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Is continuing education important for diagnostic medical sonographers?

Certifying organizations often require candidates to complete a certain number of Continuing Medical Education (CME) credits in order to maintain their certifications. CMEs are available at numerous institutions; some organizations charge a fee, while others do not. Examples of organizations that provide CMEs include the associations listed in the previous question, among others. One should always check with one’s certifying organization for the types of CME credits they accept, and from which organizations.

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What are the typical responsibilities of a sonographer?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (OOH, 2013) diagnostic medical sonographers typically have the following responsibilities regardless of specialization:

  • Take ultrasound images of patients’ anatomy, provide reports of sonographic findings to physicians to use in medical diagnoses
  • Operate ultrasound equipment in order to produce images of parts of patients’ bodies
  • Monitor and care for patients throughout the ultrasound procedure in order to ensure their comfort and safety
  • Record and maintain patients’ medical ultrasound histories and related information, such as ultrasound interpretations, medical correspondences, and pathology reports.

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What is the typical job environment for diagnostic medical sonographers?

Diagnostic medical sonographers work in health care facilities such as hospitals, physicians’ offices, medical laboratories, and outpatient care centers. Sonographers typically work in dimly lit rooms with sonography equipment, and often spend long hours both on their feet and sitting next to patients. Their work schedule is generally a standard 40-hour workweek. However, some sonographers may be required to work overtime or evening hours at facilities such as emergency rooms (OOH, 2013).

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What tools and technology do diagnostic medical sonographers use?

ONET Online lists the following medical equipment and technologies that diagnostic medical sonographers generally use on a regular basis:

  • Sonography equipment— doppler, pulse echo, and echography units, and related transducers and monitors
  • Patient medical records software
  • Spreadsheet software

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What important attributes must a diagnostic medical sonographer have?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (OOH, 2013) notes that those interested in pursuing a career in diagnostic medical sonography may benefit from possessing the following skills/qualities:

  • Attention to Detail—diagnostic medical sonographers must be very observant and attentive to both specific procedure instructions and sonographic images in order to properly evaluate a patient’s health.
  • Technical Skills—taking medical sonographic images involves using different pieces of often complex ultrasound equipment. Diagnostic medical sonographers should be knowledgeable of how this equipment operates and when to use certain devices over others.
  • Coordination—diagnostic medical sonographers should be able to modify their use and placement of various ultrasound equipment in order to take the required images for a proper medical diagnosis.
  • Communication Skills—working closely with patients and discussing regularly with physicians and other medical staff is generally a key aspect of this profession. As a result, diagnostic medical sonographers must be able to communicate procedure instructions to patients, as well as describe sonographic findings to doctors and nurses.
  • Interpersonal Skills—as with many professions within the medical field, diagnostic medical sonography can involve working with patients who are either in pain or distress, and thus diagnostic medical sonographers must be able to keep patients calm and cooperative during procedures.
  • Stamina—diagnostic medical sonographers often stay on their feet for long hours, and at times must lift or move patients who are injured or disabled.

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What is the employment outlook for diagnostic medical sonographers?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of diagnostic medical sonographers is projected to grow by 44 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020, a rate that is much higher than the national average for all occupations. As sonography is a no- radiation and noninvasive procedure, patients who have the option will likely opt for sonographic medical evaluations over X-rays or invasive procedures. In addition, the baby boomer population will comprise much of the increased demand for medical diagnostic ultrasound procedures (OOH, 2013).

While the majority of sonographers work in hospitals, employment growth for sonographers is expected to be very high in doctor’s offices and diagnostic medical laboratories due to the fact that the healthcare industry is generally placing more emphasis on outpatient care as a way to save costs on medical care (OOH, 2013).

States with the highest employment level in this occupation in May 2011:

State

Employment

Hourly mean wage

Annual mean wage

California

5,320

$39.30

$81,750

Florida

4,890

$28.01

$58,260

New York

3,600

$31.71

$65,960

Texas

3,590

$29.99

$62,370

Pennsylvania

2,550

$28.10

$58,450

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (OES), 2012

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What is the average diagnostic medical sonographer salary nationally?

According to bls.gov, the mean average salary for diagnostic medical sonographers in May of 2011 was $65,800.

Percentile Wage Estimates for Diagnostic Medical Sonographers in May 2011:

Percentile

10%

25%

50%
(Median)

75%

90%

Hourly Wage

$21.61

$25.88

$31.35

$36.57

$43.58

Annual Wage

$44,950

$53,830

$65,210

$76,060

$90,640

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (OES), 2012

Top-paying states for this occupation in May 2011:

State

Employment

Hourly mean wage

Annual mean wage

California

5,320

$39.30

$81,750

Oregon

460

$38.55

$80,190

Massachusetts

1,390

$38.29

$79,650

Colorado

880

$38.24

$79,540

Connecticut

800

$38.01

$79,060

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (OES), 2012

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Related Careers:

Some careers that are related to the field of diagnostic medical sonography include:

  • Cardiovascular Technicians and Technologists—use imaging technology to assist physicians in diagnosing patients’ heart and vascular conditions. They also use imaging technology to help doctors determine good options for treatment of medical ailments.
  • Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technicians and Technologists—collect samples of patients’ tissues and/or bodily fluids, and conduct tests on these samples for diagnostic, treatment, or research purposes.
  • Radiologic Technologists—conduct diagnostic imaging evaluations on patients, including x-rays.
  • Medical Assistants—assist with clinical and/or administrative tasks in a hospital or medical office, such as scheduling appointments, taking patients’ vitals, recording medical histories, and handling patient billing.
  • Registered Nurses—provide and oversee patient care in numerous medical settings, including hospitals, doctors’ offices, schools, and military camps. They also coordinate LPN/LVNs’ treatment of patients.
  • Licensed Practical and Vocational Nurses—provide patients with basic nursing care under the supervision of physicians and registered nurses.

Sources and Additional Information:

Diagnostic Medical Sonographers, OOH (2012-2013 edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/diagnostic- medical-sonographers.htm
Diagnostic Medical Sonographers, OES (May 2011), Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292032.htm
American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography, Inc. (ARDMS), http://www.ardms.org/
American Registry of Radiologic Technologists, https://www.arrt.org/Certification/Sonography
Cardiovascular Credentialing International, http://www.cci-online.org/
American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine, http://www.aium.org/
Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography, http://www.sdms.org/
Society for Vascular Ultrasound, http://www.svunet.org
ONet Online: Diagnostic Medical Sonographers, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/29-2032.00