Guide to Becoming an Ultrasound Technologist
Ultrasound technologists (also known as diagnostic medical sonographers) have the knowledge and responsibility to perform ultrasound examinations utilizing a technology that creates detailed and dynamic images of the body’s internal organs using high frequency sound waves. Technologists create live, real-time images of organs and blood vessels in action, which would otherwise be virtually impossible to detect and document with X-ray or other imaging techniques.
Because ultrasound is non-invasive and uses no radiation or dangerous dyes, it is safe to use on everyone including children, the elderly and expectant mothers. It is well known that ultrasound is an indispensable tool used to monitor pregnancies, but physicians in many other fields rely on the images captured by these skilled professionals to diagnose and treat their patients.
To perform an ultrasound, a technologist transmits high frequency sound waves via a handheld device called a transducer, viewing the live images it produces on a display screen. This professional uses his or her detailed knowledge of anatomy and pathology to discern the most appropriate and representative images to record for review by a physician. A tech may perform a variety of ultrasounds depending upon the examination's purpose, from visualizing the direction and flow of blood through a vessel to determining a baby’s gender.
Ultrasound’s applications are vast and continue to expand. The newest technologies enable operators to use transducers attached to smart phones, allowing them to perform examinations outside of traditional hospitals and offices, even in remote or undeveloped areas of the world. Ultrasound technologists are at the forefront of this increasingly effective modality that will continue to transform the practice of medicine.
Hospitals employ the majority of these professionals, but ultrasound techs also work in outpatient diagnostic clinics and physicians’ offices. Low lighting is required for most ultrasound procedures, so technologists often work in dim rooms. Most ultrasound procedures are prescheduled during regular business hours, but a technologist’s expertise is sometimes needed for an emergency during off hours, weekends or holidays.
Ultrasound technologists should complete an accredited training program. Depending on the program, it can take anywhere from one to four years to complete. Accredited ultrasound programs can be found at community colleges (a two-year associate’s degree) or four-year institutions (a bachelor’s degree). Accredited certificate programs are also available for people who have previous healthcare degrees and usually take 12 to 15 months.
Accredited programs are listed online at the Joint Review Committee on Education in Diagnostic Medical Sonography or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs. If your school is not on this list, find a different program! Graduates from non-accredited programs are not eligible to take the qualifying exams and as such, they are not going to be considered for hire by most employers.
An educational program in sonography includes multiple classroom courses in anatomy and physiology, pathology, physics, ethics and protocols, and ultrasound imaging. Additionally, there is significant clinical time in a medical setting where students learn, observe, and eventually perform ultrasound examinations under the guidance of experienced sonographers and physicians. Accredited programs should provide over 1000 clinical hours for their students.
Passing the Registry Examinations means you are a ‘Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer’ or RDMS. Being RDMS or RDMS-eligible is considered the industry standard for employment. The exams are given by the ARDMS (American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography) or the ARRT (American Registry of Radiologic Technologists). There are multiple sub-specialty exams in which techs can become registered based on their interests and experience, including OB/GYN, abdomen, vascular, echocardiography, breast, ophthalmology, and fetal neurosonology.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Ultrasound technologists must be able to focus on subtle details while working quickly, especially in busy departments. Stamina and strength are important, as being a sonographer can be a very physical job. Along with proficient technical skills, techs must have good interpersonal skills since they work intimately with patients, many of whom may be anxious or in distress. Since they shouldn’t advise patients on their diagnosis or treatments, they must be able to maintain a neutral, yet friendly demeanor while performing procedures.
Opportunities for Advancement
With their educational background and experience, ultrasound technologists can expand their skills into other medical imaging specialties. They can also grow into departmental management or administrative roles. Others may prefer to share their knowledge by becoming educators. There is also plenty of room for growth and advancement at the corporate level with ultrasound equipment manufacturers or related businesses doing sales, applications, customer training, or administrative work.
If you would like to gain the necessary education to become an ultrasound technologist, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.
Salary and Job Outlook
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The annual median salary for ultrasound technologists is $67,530, with a range of $46,930 to $93,850, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of May 2014. Technologists working in outpatient centers and specialty hospitals generally had slightly higher salaries than those working in other settings.
Ultrasound technologists should have no problem finding jobs in coming years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an astounding employment growth of 46 percent (much higher than average growth) from 2012 to 2022. Improving technology, reliability, and affordability (compared to other diagnostic procedures) ensure the continued use of ultrasound as a first-line diagnostic tool. A technologist with a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution and several specialty certifications will be the most highly desired in the industry.