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Cardiac Sonographer Education, Schools, and Career Overview

Cardiac sonographers, also referred to as echocardiographers or cardiac ultrasound technologists, take ultrasounds specific to the heart.

They are trained to look at the heart vessels, chambers, and valves, as well as how well the heart muscles contact. These professionals perform ultrasounds on patients both while they're resting or immediately following exercise on a treadmill. Cardiac sonographers also initiate IVs in order to administer medication to patients.

Cardiac sonographers may see a variety of types of patients, including:

  • Newborn babies and pediatric patients with congenital heart defects
  • Individuals experiencing chest pain
  • Patients having fainting spells
  • Patients with disease of the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy)
  • Patients who have heart murmurs

How to Become a Cardiac Sonographer

The most common level of education completed by cardiac sonographers is an associate degree program, although completing a four-year bachelor's degree program in this field may increase one's marketability. Some sonography programs require applicants to have graduated from a radiologic technologist program before they're accepted.

Degree Programs for Cardiac Sonography

Certificate programs have the benefit of preparing graduates for the workforce in as few as twelve months.

Associate degree programs typically meet the educational expectations of most prospective employers. Associate degree programs in cardiac sonography also meet the accreditation requirements set by the Commission of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) and they also allow graduates to achieve the standards set by the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography, the national certifying agency specific to this profession.

Bachelor's degree programs offer students the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the field of cardiac sonography.

Coursework

Students can expect to spend a significant portion of the first part of their academic careers learning the particulars of cardiovascular anatomy, physiology and function. Didactic training can also familiarize students with issues specific to patient care and bedside manner, as well as medical ethics.

Next comes the study and practice of instrumentation, or the use of ultrasound diagnostic imaging equipment. Cardiac sonographer jobs are all about operating ultrasound equipment; so aspiring students can expect technical training in the function and operation of advanced medical imaging equipment. Cardiac sonographers are also expected to know how to perform several different types of tests on a patient, such as:

  • A transthorasic echocardiogram (TTE)
  • A transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE)
  • A bubble study

Associate and bachelor's degree programs usually provide more specialized instruction, including clinical rotations. Specialized instruction is typically offered in cardiac sonography, vascular sonography, or invasive cardiovascular technology depending on one's area of interest.

Certifications and Licensure

Upon completing an accredited cardiac sonography degree program, graduates can sit for the ARDMS or CCI registration exams. Registry-level credentials are offered for cardiac sonographers through two separate organizations:

  • The American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonographers (ARDMS), which offers the Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer (RDCS) credential
  • Cardiovascular Credentialing International (CCI), which offers  the Registered Cardiac Sonographer (RCS) credential

Both exams are computer-based and are offered at testing centers throughout the country. The test questions include live images that one must be able to interpret.

Are registry credentials and state licensure required for this field?

It depends. In addition to the national registry, some states require cardiac sonographers to obtain a license. In other states, although a license and registry are not required, employers prefer to hire those who have a registry credential. Certain states have adopted rules for Medicare coverage that require sonographers and other medical professionals be credentialed in order to pay the maximum rate for a procedure. For them this is assurance that the sonographer has the necessary fundamental knowledge to accurately perform their job duties.

Career Advancement

The continuing education credits for those with a RDCS credential are 30 per every three-year renewal period. Those with the RCS credential are required to earn 36 credits in three years.

According to the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography there are different ways to pursue career advancement. With work experience and the proper degree you may be able to become a lead sonographer or an ultrasound department director. You might also be able to work in equipment manufacturing, sales, or as a consultant.

Cardiac Sonographer Career Outlook and Salary Information

Also known as echocardiographers, people in these roles are responsible for taking images of a patient's heart. For routine cardiac ultrasound procedures, cardiac sonographers work alone. However, interaction with the physician is common to clarify or to review findings. When a cardiac sonographer is involved in a stress echo the physician is in the room, along with the EKG Tech who is operating the treadmill and taking the patient’s blood pressure.

Where do cardiac sonographers work?

Cardiac sonographers have a wide variety of employment opportunities available to them. These are the most common ones.

  • Cardiologists’ offices and hospitals: In hospital settings, cardiac sonographers are considered to be part of the non-invasive cardiology department, along with EKG Techs and cardiac rehab personnel.
  • Mobile echo companies: These typically contract with physician offices, hospitals or clinics and employ cardiac sonographers to travel to various locations.
  • Travel companies: Traveler positions may be available for short-term contracts for 3-6 months or longer depending on the need. These people may be able to travel to all parts of the US and abroad if they have the proper credentials.

Cardiac Sonographer Salaries

Salary may depend on education and geographic location.

Like many careers in healthcare, job opportunities for cardiac sonographers are expected to grow as the Baby Boomer generation reaches retirement age and requires more services.

Sources:

  • Diagnostic Medical Sonographers and Cardiovascular Technologists and Technicians, Including Vascular Technologists, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Healthcare/Diagnostic-medical-sonographers.htm#tab-1
  • Career Center, American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography,
    http://www.ardms.org/careers_in_sonography/career_center#Ultrasound%20Career%20Advancement

Cardiac Sonographer Schools