Guide to Becoming an Ultrasound Technologist
Ultrasound technologists have the privilege and responsibility of administering ultrasound, a technology that creates detailed and dynamic images of the body’s internal organs using high frequency sound waves. By bouncing these sound waves off of the body’s tissues, technologists create images of organs that would otherwise be virtually impossible to detect and document. Because ultrasound is non-invasive and uses no radiation or dyes, it is safe enough to use with everyone, including children, the elderly and even expectant mothers. Physicians rely on the images captured by these skilled professionals to diagnose and treat patients as well as to track their pregnancies.
To perform an ultrasound, a technologist transmits high frequency sound waves via a handheld device called a transducer and views the live images it produces on a display screen. This professional uses his detailed knowledge of anatomy 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 already vast, and continuing to expand still further; soon techs will use transducers attached to smart phones 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 must 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). One-year certificates are also available for people who have previous healthcare experience. Accredited programs are listed at the Joint Review Committee on Education in Diagnostic Medical Sonography or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs.
An ultrasound technology educational program includes training in interpreting ultrasound images, but most training is conducted on the job by an experienced ultrasound tech or physician. Training may last a few weeks or a few months depending on the technologist’s experience.
Certification is an industry standard for employment. Technologists may obtain their certification during their educational program, or through the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonography or another professional organization. An ultrasound tech can be certified in more than one specialty.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Being alert for tiny abnormalities in an image may mean the difference between an accurate diagnosis and an inaccurate one. Ultrasound technologists must be able to focus on subtle details despite working on their feet for hours at a time. Along with proficient technical skills, they must have good interpersonal skills as they work intimately with patients, many of whom may be anxious or in discomfort. They are not permitted to inform patients of a suspected diagnosis or abnormality, so they must maintain a neutral yet friendly demeanor while performing procedures.
Opportunities for Advancement
With their educational background and experience, ultrasound technologists have the opportunity to transition into other medical imaging specialties or into direct patient care jobs (with additional education and training). Some choose to go the administrative route and take on managerial or supervisory roles. Others share their experience with aspiring ultrasound technologists by becoming educators.
The annual median salary for ultrasound technologists in 2010 was about $64,000, with a range of $44,900 - $88,490. Technologists working in outpatient centers and doctors’ offices had slightly higher salaries than those working in other settings.
Ultrasound technologists will have no problem finding jobs in the next ten years or so. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment growth of approximately 44 percent because of the increasing popularity of ultrasound procedures and better portability of the machines. A technologist with a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution and several specialty certifications will be the most highly desired in the industry.