From General DMS to Telemedicine, learn what Sonographers do every day
Sonographers play an important role in the lives of their patients. They’re with them as they hear their baby’s heart beat for the first time, they help the physicians diagnose and treat disease, and they provide support during what can be very emotional circumstances.
What Does an Ultrasound Technician Do?
An ultrasound technician, also referred to as a sonographer or diagnostic medical sonographer, does more than just operate imaging equipment. They balance patient interaction and technological performance with a firm knowledge of anatomy and pathology by working cohesively with a healthcare team.
While ultrasound technicians work in a variety of locations, their general job duties are consistent. These include:
- Performing the ultrasound and ensuring the transducer (probe) is capturing images correctly
- Explaining the ultrasound procedure to patients in order to avoid confusion
- Maintaining ultrasound equipment and sterilizing the room in which the procedure takes place
- Spreading the ultrasound gel on the surface of the patient’s body to cover the internal area being imaged
- Evaluating the images for their quality, and interpreting what the image captured
- Presenting images and preliminary findings to physicians and the healthcare team
- Maintaining patient records and adding medical notes related to the ultrasound procedure
In addition, there are physical requirements that typically include:
- Lifting at least 50 pounds
- Standing for prolonged periods of time
- Ability to work 12 hour shifts in a hospital setting, including nights and weekends
A sonographer must also possess certain values and abilities, including social perceptiveness, critical thinking, clear communication, active listening and patient problem sensitivity.
A Closer Look at Sonography
Diagnostic vs. Therapeutic Ultrasound
Sonographers use imaging equipment that non-invasively emits sound waves directed towards internal organs, blood vessels, tissues and other structures in order to detect abnormalities. A sonographer’s job description entails using this specialized technology as well as assisting physicians and other members of the healthcare team with interpreting images. Sonographers also work directly with patients by preparing them for procedures and keeping track of their history.
Ultrasound techs are trained to identify normal anatomical structures as well as detect structural and functional abnormalities. For example, a vascular sonographer may detect a blockage of blood flow to a patient’s brain which would explain their recent stroke symptoms. This type of ultrasound is known as diagnostic ultrasound.
Ultrasound can also be used therapeutically in the treatment of disease, known as therapeutic ultrasound. This involves directing energy into tissues, nerves, and other aspects of the body in order to produce beneficial physiological effects. For example, a physical therapist may use ultrasonic technology to treat a patient with a musculoskeletal injury.
Medical Imaging Modalities
Ultrasound technicians differ from radiologic technicians who perform X-rays, MRIs and CT scans in that their equipment employs sound waves instead of radiation. Despite this difference, their work often compliments one another. For example, a radiologic technician will often take a mammogram of the breast in conjunction with a sonographer performing an ultrasound.
A sonographer’s job description varies depending on where they work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the majority of diagnostic medical sonographers worked in hospitals. In a hospital setting, 12 hour shifts are not uncommon, and a sonographer can expect an average of 12-15 patients in a day. Sonographers will work closely the healthcare team, receiving referrals from physicians and reporting any concerns back immediately.
Sample Ultrasound Technician Job Postings
Job descriptions and postings vary, depending on the employer and specialty involved. As follows is an example of a typical job posting, describing the professional tasks of the sonographer to be hired:
Seeking Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
- Responsible for performing all ultrasound procedures including those within the department, at the bedside, and in the OR.
- Works closely with the radiologist and other licensed physicians presenting images and data for interpretation and assisting with interventional procedures.
- Shows independent judgment when performing procedures and when addressing difficult or unusual situations.
- Responsible for evaluating images for technical quality.
- Utilizes PACS (picture archiving and communications system) with accuracy.
- Accepts additional assignments and tasks as needed for the department.
- Provides ultrasound department coverage after hours when participating in on-call rotation.
- Assesses patient to determine ability to undergo requested examination.
The field of medical imaging is constantly changing, with new technology bringing new opportunities. Here are just a couple of the emerging fields within diagnostic medical sonography.
A number of ultrasound staffing agencies give sonographers the option to take their vocation on the road.
Traveling ultrasound technicians generally work on short term contracts, filling in for sonographers who go on maternity or sick leave, vacation, or extended leaves of absence. It’s a great experience for ultrasound techs to experience different parts of the country and a variety of workplaces.
Reputable staffing agencies should cover travel, housing and per diem expenses. Additionally, traveling sonographers often earn more during their contract than they would working the same period as a permanent employee, and the work schedule tends to be more flexible.
To discover more about being a traveling sonographer, check out Stephanie Eisler’s The “Nanny McPhee” of Ultrasound Part 1 and Part 2, and our interview with President of SonoTemps Inc., Dave Felix.
Telemedicine involves two or more healthcare professionals, who are in different geographic locales, sharing medical information via electronic or telecommunications.
“Telemedicine includes a growing variety of applications and services using two-way video, email, smart phones, wireless tools and other forms of telecommunications technology,” states the American Telemedicine Association.
“Starting out over forty years ago with demonstrations of hospitals extending care to patients in remote areas, the use of telemedicine has spread rapidly and is now becoming integrated into the ongoing operations of hospitals, specialty departments, home health agencies, private physician offices as well as consumer’s homes and workplaces.”
Ultrasound technicians play an important role in telemedicine. At a rural hospital or health center, for example, there may be limited times when a specialized physician, like a cardiologist or gastroenterologist, is actually on site. In these situations, sonographers and other medical imagers can work directly with patients at the facility and communicate their findings with the appropriate physician via telemedicine.
“The benefits of telehealth were immediately apparent,” described AuntMinnie.com contributing writer, Doug Wuebben, about working as a pediatric echocardiographer in South Dakota.
“I was able to plug my ultrasound machine into the telemedicine unit, which in turn allowed my study to be reviewed remotely; whatever was seen on the ultrasound machine’s screen was also seen by the pediatric cardiologist on the other end. A pediatric cardiologist would remotely view my study ‘live’ and see things exactly how I saw them in real-time… Because information was obtained “live,” decisions could be made quickly about the clinical course for the patient.”
Getting Started on a New Path
Numerous colleges and universities offer ultrasound degree programs that will provide aspiring sonographers with the theory and practice (through labs and clinical internships) they need to be a successful ultrasound technician.
Before applying for a program, it’s important to ensure it will qualify to you to become certified through the ARDMS (American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography), a credential heralded by the American and global medical community.