How to Become an Ultrasound Technician
When people think of ultrasound technicians (also known as sonographers or ultrasound technologists), they often visualize the TV shows, movies, or ads they’ve seen where ultrasound is used during pregnancy to give parents a peek inside the womb to view the moving and growing baby. This is probably the most famous utilization of ultrasound, but there are so many other uses for this powerful technology as well. Sonographers play a vital role in evaluating and diagnosing a huge range of medical conditions among pre-born, newborn, child, adult, and elderly patients.
The field of ultrasound has many different specialties: cardiac, OB/GYN, ophthalmic, vascular, abdominal, breast, interventional, and more. A sonographer’s skills are highly specialized and valued, and most students are able to find a niche within the specialty that fits them best. Not many careers can lay claim to such a breadth of opportunity for personal satisfaction as well as opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of patients.
Ultrasound relies on sound waves to produce images of internal organs, soft tissue, and blood vessels, as well as to observe developing fetuses in the womb. Since it is non-invasive and does not use radiation, it is perfectly safe and harmless in trained hands. Ultrasound also has the benefit of being less expensive to utilize than many other imaging techniques (such as MRI or CT scan), so ultrasound is often the preferred, first-option exam.
Ultrasound hinges on the skill of the operator, which means that ultrasound technicians must arm themselves with a strong knowledge of human anatomy and physiology, as well as mastery of the technology itself. Performing a quality ultrasound requires a well-trained operator who can correctly position the patient and record accurate images, distinguishing the normal anatomy from the abnormal. These professionals must know how to take medical histories in order to guide their ultrasound examinations. Last but not least, they must be able to do all those tasks while directly interacting with the patient.
During examinations, ultrasound technicians enjoy a variety of crucial duties. They must select and capture the best images, take measurements, make calculations and even evaluate the preliminary results. All of this work during their examination directly aids doctors in making the correct diagnosis so that successful treatment can begin.
Approximately 60% of ultrasound technicians work in hospitals, either at a stationary location in a diagnostics area or by conducting mobile ultrasounds at the bedside of patients who cannot be transported. Hospital-based sonographers often take on-call hours one or two times a week and must be able to show up any time of day or night if there is need for an emergency ultrasound.
Outside of the hospital, there are plenty of opportunities for experienced ultrasound techs to work in private physician offices and/or outpatient diagnostic imaging clinics. There are plenty of full-time opportunities, but one of the benefits of being a specialized medical provider is the ability to find part-time and flexible work hours.
Ultrasound technicians spend a lot of time on their feet and on the move, a relief for those who do not want a job sitting behind a desk. Sometimes a tech needs to reposition or transfer patients, which may require a lot of upper body strength and consequently brings the risk of muscle strains and repetitive use injuries. As with most healthcare professions, ultrasound technicians can also be exposed to various health risks, including infectious agents such as HIV and hepatitis.
Sonography students need to complete an associate’s degree or postgraduate certificate program from an accredited program in order to be eligible to take the qualifying exams. Bachelor’s and master’s degrees are also available. People who are already in a related allied health profession may be candidates for one-year certificate programs.
It is crucially important to make sure that the school you attend is accredited. Ultrasound schools are poorly regulated compared to X-ray and other medical professions, so do your research. To find out if a school is accredited, check with the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Joint Review Committee on Education in Diagnostic Medical Sonography. Some (but not all) hospitals, community colleges, universities, vocational schools, and the Armed Forces provide accredited sonographer training programs.
High school students interested in applying to an ultrasound technologist training program should pursue a curriculum rich in science, computer, and math courses. Familiarity with computers is important, since most ultrasound equipment is computer-based. Physics courses are helpful as well, since you will be required to learn and master ultrasound-based physics courses and exams.
Online ultrasound training programs do exist, but it is important to verify that these programs are accredited and that they will provide you with clinical hours. While the classroom work can be done online, the extensive clinical time that will be required cannot.
Ultrasound technologist training programs require both classroom and clinical time. Clinical internships are where students observe, learn, and practice ultrasound skills in a healthcare setting on live patients under the direct guidance of experienced sonographers and physicians. Reputable ultrasound schools should provide the clinical sites for students to obtain these hours. Over 1000 hours of clinical training are required before you can take your qualifying examinations.
Licensing and/or Certification
Many employers prefer to hire ultrasound technicians who have completed their certifying exams to become ‘registered’, earning the credential RDMS (Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer). In order to become registered, students who have graduated from an accredited program must pass exams offered either by the ARDMS (American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonographery) or by the ARRT (American Registry of Radiologic Technologists). There are multiple specialty exams students can take depending on their desired areas of specialty and experience.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Sonographers rely on excellent verbal and interpersonal relationship skills as well as good manual dexterity and the ability to withstand the physical demands of the occupation. They must also have excellent critical thinking skills in order to understand the anatomy any pathology, selecting the images that will be most useful for physicians.
Opportunities for Advancement
Ultrasound technicians enjoy opportunities to specialize in an exciting variety of areas such as the following:
- Breast ultrasound
- Obstetrics and gynecology ultrasound
- Vascular ultrasound
- Cardiac ultrasound (Echocardiography)
- Abdominal ultrasound
- Ophthalmologic ultrasonography
Ultrasound technologists can also progress to supervisory and management roles, such as senior technologist, department supervisor, clinical instructor, or program director. Further opportunities exist outside of patient care working for ultrasound manufacturers in more business-based roles such as sales, applications, or client relations.
If you would like to gain the necessary education to become an ultrasound technician, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.
Salary and Job Outlook
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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual median pay of ultrasound technicians is $67,530 as of May 2014, with a range of $46,930-$93,850. Higher salaries are generally available to ultrasound technicians who have more years of experience; earn bachelor’s or master’s degrees; take on administrative or supervisory roles; or complete advanced specializations. Some technicians also increase their salaries by working for private industry.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that job growth for ultrasound technicians from 2012-2022 will be 46%, which is much higher than average. Many different fields of medicine increasingly rely on ultrasound as a diagnostic imaging tool. Sonography is irreplaceable by any other imaging technique. As medicine continues to place increased emphasis on less invasive diagnostic techniques and cost-effective care, the demand for ultrasound exams and the sonographers who can perform them will continue to increase. Positions can be found nationwide.