How to Become an Ultrasound Technician

Overview

By Veronica Hackethal
An ultrasound technician producing images of a woman's wrist

Ultrasound technicians know first-hand the satisfaction of providing vital support in diagnosing a patient's medical condition. On top of that, they know the joy of participating in one of the most thrilling moments of an expecting mother's pregnancy. Not many careers can lay claim to such a breadth of experience and positive impact on the lives of patients. These contributions are possible through the skilled use of a single, powerful form of medical technology known as ultrasound.

Ultrasound relies on sound waves to produce images of various internal body parts and organs, as well as to observe developing fetuses in the womb. Since it is non-invasive and does not use radiation or require the injection of dyes, ultrasound is considered one of the safest diagnostic imaging tools, especially for children and pregnant women.

Because of the central importance of their diagnostic work, 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 skilled operator who can correctly position the patient and record accurate images, distinguishing the normal anatomy from the abnormal. These professionals must also know how to take medical histories in order to guide ultrasound examinations.

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 examination directly aids doctors in making the correct diagnosis so that successful treatment can begin.

Work Environment

Most 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. Some ultrasound techs work in physician offices and outpatient diagnostic imaging clinics. Most employers hire ultrasound technicians to work full-time 40-hour weeks, but part-time work and flexible hours are also possible.

In contrast to those who work in a specific hospital or clinic, some ultrasound techs work as “traveling techs” who move around the country or abroad. Others find employment as mobile sonographers, operating mobile sonograph machines that are transported in vans and used for patients who are unable to travel to hospitals or clinics for their exams. Mobile sonography has also been used in the battlefield for wounded soldiers.

Ultrasound technicians spend a lot of time on their feet, a relief for those who do not want a job sitting behind a desk. Sometimes a tech needs to reposition or transfer patients while performing the ultrasound, which may require a lot of upper body strength and consequently brings the risk of muscle strains. As with many healthcare professions, ultrasound technicians can also be exposed to various health risks, including infectious agents such as HIV and hepatitis.

Requirements

Education

Ultrasound technicians need to complete an associate’s degree or postgraduate certificate program from an accredited program. Those who are interested in this career should attend a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).  Hospitals, community colleges, universities, vocational schools, and the Armed Forces all provide ultrasound technician 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.

Professionals in other allied health fields can obtain training through 1-year sonography programs, which award vocational certificates. Online ultrasound technologist training programs also exist, but it is important to verify that these programs are accredited by the American Registry in Radiologic Technologists (ARRT), and that the programs provide for clinical training internships.

Training

Ultrasound technologist training programs require clinical internships where students learn ultrasound skills in a healthcare setting. On-the-job training also occurs after training or through professional conferences and continuing education opportunities.

Licensing and/or Certification

Many employers prefer to hire ultrasound technicians with professional certification. After completing an ultrasound technologist training program, graduates are eligible to become certified by taking examinations offered by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) and the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS). Passing additional certification examinations is required for ultrasound technicians who pursue specialization. These exams vary by specialty.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Ultrasound technicians 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 select 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
  • Abdominal ultrasound
  • Neurosonography
  • Ophthalmologic ultrasonography

Ultrasound technicians can also progress to supervisory roles, such as senior technologist, assistant chief technologist, chief technologist, supervisor, instructor, or program director. Additionally, a bachelor's or master's degree enables an ultrasound tech to become an educator, training the next generation. 

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

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual median pay of ultrasound technicians is $67,170 as of May 2013, with a range of $45,840-$92,070. Higher salaries are generally available to ultrasound technicians who have more years of experience, take on administrative or supervisory roles, or complete advanced specializations. Some ultrasound technicians also increase their salaries by working for private industry.

Job Outlook

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 fields of medicine use ultrasound as a diagnostic imaging tool. As medicine continues to place increased emphasis on less invasive diagnostic techniques and also cost-effective care, the demand for ultrasound technicians should certainly increase. Positions can be found nationwide.

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Further Reading

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