Ultrasound technicians, also referred to as diagnostic medical sonographers, play an essential role in helping identify, monitor and sometimes treat medical conditions and diseases. It is a fulfilling career that continues to increase in demand. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for ultrasound technicians are expected to increase by 46% in the next decade.
Frequently Asked Questions & Answers
What Does an Ultrasound Technician do?
Ultrasound technicians image organs and other structures inside a patient’s body using equipment that relies on sound wave technology. The ultrasound images or scans they capture are used to diagnose and monitor medical conditions, abnormalities or diseases. Ultrasound techs work in concert with other healthcare professionals, such as doctors and radiologists. They also help prepare patients for procedures, maintain ultrasound equipment, record patient history and present findings to the medical team. As diagnostic medical sonographers, they help interpret ultrasound images.
How Long Does it Take to Become an Ultrasound Technician?
Most employers require an associates degree in sonography, which is typically a two-year program. Some ultrasound technician programs, however, offer certificates that can be obtained in 12-18 months.
What’s the Job Market Like?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job outlook for diagnostic medical sonographers/ultrasound technologists looks very promising. The projected job growth between 2012 and 2022 is 46% in the United States. (The average job growth projection for all occupations in the U.S. is 14%). This equates to over 23,000 new ultrasound tech jobs within this decade.
Where can I Expect to Work After I Complete my Degree?
Ultrasound technicians and medical sonographers work in hospitals, doctor’s offices, medical/diagnostic labs, outpatient centers and other healthcare facilities. In 2010, the BLS stated that 61% of ultrasound technologists worked in hospitals. This includes working in the emergency room, the sonography department and also performing ultrasounds in patient rooms.
There is also an emerging job market for traveling or temporary sonographers, which we explore in an interview with Dave Felix, founder of SonoTemps, Inc.
What’s a Typical day Like for an Ultrasound Technician?
New graduates will typically work in hospital settings. Shifts are normally eight hours, and in that time you could expect to perform 10-15 ultrasounds, with paperwork and documentation required for each. During that time, you will interact with patients, physicians, and other technicians, along with various other personnel. Much of the workday is spent on your feet, and emergency situations may require extended hours. Schedule changes are not unusual.
Ultrasound Technician Salary
In 2013, the median salary for medical sonographers was $66,410/year, according to the BLS. The BLS adds that the bottom 10% of ultrasound technologists made $44,8400/year, whereas the top 10% made $92,070/year*.
Numerous factors contribute to an ultrasound tech’s salary. Naturally the more experience you have, generally the more you will make. Certifications and higher education also lead to more advanced or specialized job positions which lead to higher compensation. Where you work also plays a role. For example, the BLS stated that in 2013, ultrasound technologists working in outpatient care centers made more than those in doctor’s offices, labs and hospitals. Finally, geographic location is also a factor. In May 2013, the BLS reported that California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Rhode Island provided the highest salaries to their sonographers.
Ultrasound Licensing/Certification Requirements
In certain states, such as New Jersey, New Mexico, West Virginia and Oregon, mandatory licensing laws for ultrasound technologists have either been passed or proposed. Where ultrasound certification is not legally required, still many employers either prefer or require medical sonographers to be licensed or credentialed. Generally speaking, those who are certified have a competitive advantage over those who are not when looking for employment.
The ARDMS (American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography) is a leading accrediting organization recognized across the United States and the world. You can become certified in numerous specialties of ultrasound through meeting educational and experiential pre-requisites and writing a certification exam.
Other licensing or certification organizations that offer credentials relevant to ultrasound technology include the ARRT (American Registry for Radiologic Technologists), CCI (Cardiovascular Credentialing International) and JCAHPO (Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology).
Ultrasound Technician Roles and Specializations
There are numerous specializations within the field of ultrasonography, and they all play an essential role in today’s healthcare.
Here is an overview of some of the more popular specialties within medical imaging.
Cardiovascular technologists play a critical role in the overall health of Americans, especially as we age. They work closely with doctors to assess heart and vascular system health. Sonographers generally perform non-invasive ultrasounds and assist physicians with making diagnoses based on the images they collect.
Cardiovascular technologists, broadly speaking, may also perform invasive procedures, such as inserting cardiac catheters and conducting stress tests. As the populations ages, the need for cardiac health grows. The demand for cardiovascular technologists is expected to increase by 29% over the next eight or more years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Obstetric and Gynecologic Sonography
This is the function that most people probably think of when they hear the word “ultrasound”. An obstetric sonographer performs ultrasounds to determine the presence of an embryo/fetus inside the uterus of a woman or to assess the health, growth and development of the fetus. A diagnostic medical sonographer who specializes in obstetric ultrasounds not only has to be skilled in biology, physics and technology – he or she also has to be caring, compassionate, and professional. They will find themselves present in what is typically one of the most important times of a woman’s, and her partner’s, lives, when emotions are at their peak.
Sonography in gynecology involves taking ultrasounds of the female pelvic region. Normally these ultrasounds are performed on the female reproductive system for purposes separate from those related to pregnancy. Gynecologic ultrasounds are used to detect, and sometimes treat, abnormalities, such as ovarian cysts or uterine fibroids. A gynecologic sonographer performs both transabdominal and transvaginal ultrasounds.
Neurosonographers perform ultrasounds on the brain and the rest of the nervous system. Patients may be infants all the way up to senior citizens. Neurosonography is also performed on fetuses developing in the womb. The purpose of neurological and nervous system ultrasound is to detect and monitor abnormalities or disorders such as risks of stroke, hemorrhages, Sickle Cell disease and arterial dissections. Breakthroughs are continuing in the field of neurosonography, where ultrasound is not only playing a role in diagnosis but also in treatment.
Simply put, opthalmologic sonography is an ultrasound of the eye. Technicians who are specialized in ophthalmologic sonography perform ultrasounds on the eye and orbit (eye socket) to take measurements before surgery or to detect abnormalities such as tumors, detached retinas or hemorrhages among the vitreous fluid. Ophthalmologic sonography may be practiced anywhere from a hospital’s emergency room to an ophthalmology clinic.
62,000 women and 2,000 men are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, and breast sonography is proving to be a valuable tool in the fight against this dreaded disease. Breast ultrasounds can be more comprehensive than mammograms and are often performed to further evaluate findings from the mammogram or from a clinical check-up. Since they are able to see all layers and angles of the breast, the images that breast sonographers are able to obtain play an important role in the early detection of breast cancer among female and male patients.
Abdominal and Genitourinary Sonography
Abdomen sonography involves taking ultrasounds of the organs and soft tissues in the abdominal region, including the liver, spleen, kidneys, pancreas and gallbladder. Abdominal ultrasounds help detect and diagnose a variety of conditions, from kidney stones and gallstones to pancreatic cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. Abdominal sonographers also play an important role in assisting physicians when they perform diagnostic biopsies by helping guide the physician to the targeted area.
The genitourinary system includes organs from both the urinary and reproductive systems, and ultrasound techs with this specialization perform ultrasounds that are used to capture images of urinary and genital organs of both males and females, adults and children. There are many possible genitourinary complications and diseases and ultrasonography assists with early detection in a non-invasive, efficient manner. Genitourinary sonographers also help with monitoring health conditions and in some cases assist with treatment procedures.
Echocardiography and Pediatric/Fetal Echocardiography
Echocardiography is the process of performing ultrasounds on the heart and its surrounding structures. In producing these echocardiograms or electrocardiograms, cardiac sonographers help diagnose cardiovascular diseases and assess the overall health and function of the heart. In most cases cardiograms are non-invasive, meaning that the ultrasounds are performed on the surface of the patient’s skin. Echocardiographers may perform ultrasounds while the patient is either at rest or active (as part of a stress test for example). Doppler sonography is often employed by echocardiographers or cardiovascular techs as a means to detect the direction and speed at which blood is flowing throughout the blood vessels and heart. Doppler ultrasounds generate both audio outputs and visual images.
Heart problems and disease are the number one type of birth defect in the United States. Those specialized in pediatric and fetal echocardiography are trained to perform tests that can be used to diagnose heart defects and disease early on, even before a baby is born. Fetal echocardiography is normally performed on expecting mothers if a sonogram detects an irregular heart beat among the fetus or if the family history hints at potential heart problems. Pediatric patients will undergo an echocardiogram for the diagnosis of either congenital or acquired heart problems/diseases. Pediatric and fetal echocardiographers also prove useful during treatment procedures and surgeries.
Vascular Interventional Sonography
Vascular interventional sonography, referred to as intravascular ultrasound, combines imaging techniques with invasive medical procedures. This means that an ultrasound device is inserted inside the body – in this case inside a blood vessel. Coronary arteries are the most common blood vessels to be examined in this way. Vascular interventional sonographers perform tests that are used for both diagnostic and therapeutic purposes.
Musculoskeletal (MSK) sonography is an emerging form of ultrasound becoming increasingly popular in the fields of sports medicine, rheumatology and other areas specifically dealing with joints, muscles, tendons, nerves and ligaments. MSK sonographers help diagnose musculoskeletal injuries and diseases and also monitor the progression or treatment of those conditions.
*Salary information provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics Survey, 2013 Data: www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292032.htm.