Becoming a Sonographer
A sonographer uses high frequency sound waves in an imaging technique known as ultrasonography to create an acoustic window into the human body. The sound waves bounce off of internal organs and return to an ultrasound device, which transforms them into real-time images of the body's interior. The images that sonographers create help radiologists and other physicians pinpoint the locations of soft tissue problems that can't be seen well using other medical imaging techniques. Because ultrasonography uses nothing more than sound waves that are beyond the upper limit of human hearing, it is safe to use on a wide range of patients, from pregnant women to children and the elderly.
Sonographers specialize in an area of the body, such as the abdomen, breast, neurological system, musculoskeletal system, or in a field such as obstetrics. They administer the ultrasound waves to the region under examination via a handheld device known as a transducer. Sonographers must be tech-savvy enough to apply this sophisticated technology, and personable enough to put patients at ease when they might otherwise be nervous or uncomfortable. These professionals use their own judgment and understanding of pathology to record images that represent possible abnormalities. What looks like a grainy image to the rest of us provides a wealth of valuable information to a skilled sonographer.
Turning sound waves into images—it sounds like magic but that’s what today’s diagnostic medical sonographers do on a daily basis. Their skills and expertise help the medical team to assess and diagnose medical conditions that would otherwise be challenging to locate and record.
Most sonographers (about 60 percent) work in hospitals. Others work in doctors' offices, diagnostic facilities and outpatient centers. In most settings, they operate their equipment in a fairly large suite with dim lighting. At times, their expertise is needed on an emergent basis (especially in hospitals) so they will occasionally work overnight shifts, weekends and holidays.
Aspiring sonographers have a number of educational routes available—a one-year certificate (designed for people with healthcare experience) or an associate or bachelor’s degree (for those without healthcare experience). Sonography programs include classes in related health topics such as anatomy and physiology, and clinical training in the interpretation of sonographic images. Most employers want to hire sonographers who have attended an accredited program. Accreditation information can be found at the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs and the Joint Review Committee on Education in Diagnostic Medical Sonography.
Basic training for sonographers occurs during their educational program—students have the opportunity to work with different technologies and interpret images in a variety of specialties. On-the-job training is provided for new sonographers to learn equipment specifics, details of their specialty, and employer policies and procedures.
Licensing and/or Certification
In some US states, sonographers must have licenses. Professional certification is necessary in almost all states, however, for most sonographers to get a job. Certification is included in some educational programs, or sonographers can obtain it through professional associations such as the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography. Certification in sonography is offered in specialty areas such as fetal ultrasound or adult echocardiography, or in multiple specialties.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Since small changes in an image may signal a subtle change in a patient’s health status, precision is necessary to create a quality image using complex equipment. Sonographers must be able to concentrate when toggling between performing a diagnostic test and interacting with the patient. Good physical health, strength and stamina are essential because sonographers are on their feet for extended time periods, and they must often help to move ill or disabled patients.
Opportunities for Advancement
Having radiographic experience makes sonographers ideal candidates to move into a number of other radiology or healthcare jobs. With additional education or training, sonographers have the opportunity to advance from a strictly diagnostic role to a combination diagnostic/treatment position such as a cardiovascular or vascular technologist, or into a patient care position such as nursing.
In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported sonographers’ annual median wage as $64,380. Salaries ranged from about $44,900 to over $88,490. The highest mean salaries were reported for sonographers working in outpatient care centers and physicians’ offices.
In the next decade, sonography jobs should grow much faster than the average for all US occupations—a rate of 44 percent versus 14 percent. This substantial growth is due in part to the fact that ultrasound technology procedures are being ordered more frequently in the medical community because they are radiation free, less expensive, and less invasive than many other diagnostic tests. More job growth is expected in physicians’ offices and outpatient diagnostic centers. Sonographers with multiple certifications will have even more job opportunities.