Ultrasound Technician Degree Programs: What to Expect

The word "ultrasound" is synonymous with those images of wriggly babies featured in movies or shared by proud parents-to-be. Prenatal sonography is certainly an important part sonography, but the field is so much larger than that. Ultrasound technicians image virtually any part of the body, and may even specialize in areas like abdominal, musculoskeletal, and, yes, even obstetric sonography. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov), technological advancements and a shifting health care landscape are pushing the boundaries of what ultrasound technicians can do -- and how much they are needed. As the industry evolves and grows, so do techs' career training options. Here is a snapshot of some of the most common sonography training paths.

Degree Programs

All ultrasound technicians need formal training, and according to the BLS, that usually means certificate or degree programs. While all ultrasound technician degree programs aim to train budding sonographers, they vary in length and scope. Which is right for you depends on a number of factors, like your career goals and work history. Here is a run-down of the most common types of ultrasound technician programs and what they entail.

  • Postsecondary certificates. Postsecondary certificates may take just one year to complete, but they are not for everyone. According to the BLS, these accelerated programs are usually only relevant for those who already work in a related field, like radiation therapy. Students without health care experience will likely need to enroll in a more extensive program.
  • Associate degrees. Associate degrees typically require at least two years of study, but some intensive, accelerated programs may require less time. Associate degrees tend to be more comprehensive that postsecondary certificate programs, so are a popular option for future sonographers -- especially those who have had no prior medical training.
  • Bachelor's degrees. Some ultrasound technician schools offer bachelor's degrees requiring at least three to four years of full-time study. As you might suspect, these degree programs tend to be much more comprehensive than certificate and associate degree programs.
  • Professional certifications. Not to be confused with postsecondary certificates, professional certifications are intended for practicing ultrasound technicians who have already completed one of the degree programs listed above. Some states require techs to become certified to practice; in other cases, certification is strictly voluntary. These programs allow candidates to specialize in a particular area of medicine, like obstetrical, musculoskeletal or breast sonography, while helping them them keep up with the latest trends and technologies impacting their field.

Training

Ultrasound technician degree programs may vary in length and scope, but all aim to teach future pros how to do their jobs effectively. That means that there tends to be some course overlap from one to the next. Math and science courses are common, as are several basic sonography and health care classes. The following are just a few of the courses ultrasound technicians may take, as reported by The College Board:

  • Human anatomy
  • Microbiology
  • Abdominal sonography
  • Obstetrical sonography
  • Medical terminology
  • Ultrasound physics
  • Physiology and pathophysiology
  • Vascular technology
  • Sonography clinical practicum
  • Medical ethics

The BLS reports that most sonography degree programs require students to complete laboratory and clinical hours, often through internships. These internships help students gain valuable, hands-on experience working with real patients under the direction of an experienced ultrasound technician. Students can usually complete internships in hospitals, physician's offices and imaging laboratories.

Career Outlook

To say that ultrasound technicians are in demand might be an understatement: The BLS projects that demand for diagnostic medical sonographers will grow by 46 percent nationally between 2012 and 2022 -- much faster than the average for all occupations. Evolving technology that allows practitioners to use ultrasound technology in lieu of more invasive or costly procedures, like MRIs, will help spur demand. A large baby-boom population -- with increasing medical needs -- is another key factor, as is federal health legislation that expands insurance coverage of diagnostic imaging procedures.

The BLS notes that though hospitals will continue to employ the largest share of ultrasound technicians, new opportunities should emerge in physician's offices, medical and diagnostic laboratories, and outpatient care centers. The BLS expects job opportunities to be especially strong for certified ultrasound technicians, and even stronger for those certified in more than one specialty. Students can contact professional organizations like the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography or the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists to learn more.

Sources:

American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography, 2014, http://www.ardms.org/

Diagnostic Medical Sonographers and Cardiovascular Technologists and Technicians, Including Vascular Technologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/diagnostic-medical-sonographers.htm

Major: Diagnostic Medical Sonography, The College Board, bigfuture, 2014, https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/majors/health-professions-related-clinical-sciences-allied-health-diagnosis-intervention-treatment-diagnostic-medical-sonography

Sonography Certification, The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists, 2014, https://www.arrt.org/Certification/Sonography

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