Ultrasound Technicians: Education, Schools, and Career Overview
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 obstetric sonography. These images then help doctors diagnose and treat certain medical conditions.
Ultrasound technicians can work in a variety of settings, like hospitals, physician's offices, and medical and diagnostic laboratories. They often work in teams comprised of physicians, radiologists and fellow technicians. In addition to using and at times, transporting heavy equipment, ultrasound technicians often have to physically maneuver and reposition patients' bodies. Because healthcare is a round-the-clock field, it is not uncommon for ultrasound technicians to work evenings, weekends and even holidays.
Sonographers may go by several names including diagnostic medical sonographers, cardiovascular technologists or technicians and vascular technologists.
As the uses and affordability of ultrasound technology expands, opportunities are likely to emerge in a variety of new settings, like private physicians' offices and outpatient care centers. 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 the career and training options within this field.
Ultrasound Technician Specializations
Abdominal sonography is utilized to capture images of the abdominal components, including the spleen, kidneys, gallbladder, pancreas, liver, and abdominal aorta. Although abdominal sonographers are typically qualified to practice abdominal ultrasound in any setting, there are some professionals that prefer to specialize within neonatology, the study of newborns.
Neurosonography is a subspecialty of diagnostic sonography that focuses on taking ultrasound images of both the brain and the central nervous system. A neurosonographer must be extremely knowledgeable about the anatomy of the brain and central nervous system and adequately trained to identify abnormalities within these structures. Perhaps the most common subspecialty is neonatal neurosonography, which works directly with neonates to check for developmental abnormalities and birth defects.
Obstetric and Gynecologic Sonography
Although obstetrics and gynecology often go hand-in-hand, the types of ultrasounds performed for each specialty are different. Obstetric ultrasounds are used to assess and identify complications and abnormalities with a fetus during pregnancy. Gynecological ultrasounds are used to examine the internal organs of the female reproductive system, including the vagina, uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes.
How to Become an Ultrasound Technician
Ultrasound technicians need formal training, which generally mean certificate or degree programs. While all ultrasound technician degree programs aim to train budding sonographers, they vary in length and scope. 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. Usually, these accelerated programs are only relevant for those who already work in a related field, like radiation therapy. Students without healthcare experience may 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. Since associate degrees tend to be more comprehensive than postsecondary certificate programs, they 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. These degree programs tend to be much more comprehensive than certificate and associate degree programs.
All ultrasound technician degree programs 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 healthcare classes. The following are just a few of the courses ultrasound technicians may take:
- Human anatomy
- Abdominal sonography
- Obstetrical sonography
- Medical terminology
- Ultrasound physics
- Physiology and pathophysiology
- Vascular technology
- Sonography clinical practicum
- Medical ethics
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.
Ultrasound Technician Certification
There are a number of professional organizations that certify ultrasound technicians. These certification programs can vary in scope, and may focus on a particular career specialization, like abdominal, obstetric or musculoskeletal sonography. Although requirements vary, programs generally require candidates to successfully complete ultrasound technician postsecondary certificate or degree programs and accrue a certain number of clinical hours before even applying for certification. They must also typically pass a national exam that may or may not include a clinical component.
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 keep up with the latest trends and technologies impacting their field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov), employers generally prefer to hire technicians with professional certification, or expect them to earn their certification shortly after being hired.
In many cases, ultrasound technician certification is mandatory. Even when certification is strictly voluntary, however, it may offer tremendous benefits. Here are a few of them.
- Employment opportunities. Job prospects are generally seen to be especially strong for certified candidates. Ultrasound technicians certified in more than one specialty stand to benefit even more from their training.
- Cutting-edge skills. As the technology expands, so does demand for technicians who know how to use it. Professional certification ensures professionals remain on the cutting edge of their field.
- Specialization and expertise. With certification comes specialization -- the type of specialization that may help make you an expert in your career field. Ultrasound technicians who are certified in an area like abdominal ultrasound or neurosonography have more extensive training in these areas, so can often get better images (and make fewer mistakes). Technicians who are certified in multiple areas are especially valuable.
These are just a few of the benefits associated with professional certification. You can visit certifying organizations like the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) and the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) to learn more about your options.
The ARDMS offers credentialing for a number of sonography specialties. These credentials typically require students to attend an approved education program and pass a certification exam. Each may also have continuing education requirements. The following are the professional credentials offered by the ARDMS.
- Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
- Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer
- Registered Vascular Technologist
- Registered Physician in Vascular Interpretation
- Registered in Musculoskeletal Sonography
Is there room for advancement as a sonographer?
The American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) says there is plenty of room for advancement in the field. According to their website, individuals with 3-5 years as a sonographer may be able to work as the head of an ultrasound department or as a lead sonographer. In addition, consultant, sales or administrative work may be available to those with experience in the field.
Ultrasound Technician Skills and Qualities
We have already discussed how important it is for ultrasound technicians to complete certificate and degree programs. This formal training can provide future ultrasound technicians with the technical training they need to enter the field, but there are other qualities that may also help them succeed in the field Attributes such as compassion, physical strength, strong analytical abilities and an eye for detail are valuable qualities that help candidates succeed in this field. They should also be able to spend long shifts on their feet. Solid interpersonal skills are another major plus since technicians word directly with patients, some of whom may be nervous or fearful.
Career Outlook and Salary information
To say that ultrasound technicians are in demand might be an understatement: The BLS projects overall employment for diagnostic medical sonographers to grow 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, is expected to help spur demand. With the ageing of the large baby-boom population, the need to diagnose various medical conditions is likely to increase.
It is generally expected that ultrasound technicians who are certified may have ample job opportunities to choose from. Technicians with certifications in more than one specialization are expected to be at an even better position.
|Career||Total Employment||Projected Job Growth Rate|
As with other careers, sonographer salaries may be dependent on factors such as an individual's education, experience and professional credentials.
|Career||Annual Mean Wage||Bottom 10% Annual Wage||Top 10% Annual Wage|
- About ARDMS, American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography, http://www.ardms.org/Discover-ARDMS/about-us/Pages/About ARDMS.aspx, accessed January 2019
- Currently Open & Upcoming Examinations, American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography, http://www.ardms.org/Pages/default.aspx, accessed January 2019
- Major: Diagnostic Medical Sonography, BigFuture, CollegeBoard Access, https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/majors/health-professions-related-clinical-sciences-allied-health-diagnosis-intervention-treatment-diagnostic-medical-sonography, accessed January 2019
- Unemployment rates and earnings by educational attainment, 2017, Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, updated March 27, 2018, https://www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm
- Sonography, Earn ARRT Credentials, The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists, https://www.arrt.org/earn-arrt-credentials/credential-options/sonography, accessed January 2019
- Diagnostic Medical Sonographers, Cardiovascular Technologists and Technicians, Including Vascular Technologists, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, updated May 2017, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/diagnostic-medical-sonographers.htm#tab-5
- Diagnostic Medical Sonographers, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2017, Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/oes/2017/may/oes292032.htm