Diagnostic medical sonographers, also called ultrasound technicians, are trained on how to use ultrasonic sound waves to image specific locations within the human body. The sound waves reflect back to the machine at different intensities depending on what they encounter – bone reflects back almost all the sound waves while soft tissue reflects fewer. The ultrasound machine then generates images, which are helpful for identifying internal objects in a body without invasive surgical procedures.
This process – called ultrasonography (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov) – has applications beyond its common association with obstetrics and prenatal viewing. Ultrasound technicians can use the ultrasonic waves to help physicians diagnose a variety of medical conditions or even provide therapy.
Working as an Ultrasound Technician
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2012, as an ultrasound technician, you may be expected to perform any of the following tasks:
- Get patients ready for the procedure
- Maintain and prepare the imaging equipment
- Apply gel on patient to increase sound wave’s ability to display the body’s insides
- Operate diagnostic imaging equipment in ordre to get diagnostic images
- Analyze images for quality and adequate coverage of necessary area
- Discern differences between normal and abnormal images
- Analyze images for preliminary findings to convey to physicians
- Maintain patients’ medical records
Ultrasound technicians may specialize through certification in such subjects as obstetrics, gynecology, gastrointestinal medicine, or neurology. Some specializations can incorporate other radiological procedures such as MR-guided focused ultrasound, which uses an MRI machine to guide two ultrasound waves through the body, heating tumors and cysts up to 85 degrees Celsius.
Becoming an Ultrasound Technician
According to the BLS, most ultrasound technicians complete a postsecondary degree program, either as a 2-year associate degree in sonography or a 4-year bachelor’s degree (BLS.gov/ooh). A 1-year certificate program is also available, mainly for current health care professionals. Ultrasound technicians may also choose to pursue certifications in various areas of specialization to further their careers.
Ultrasound technicians may also be trained in vocational schools or colleges with on-the-job training programs taking place at hospitals or other clinical environments as well. Some ultrasound technicians are trained by the armed forces. As of 2012, the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs has accredited over 205 training and education programs for diagnostic sonography.
Although most states do not require ultrasound technicians to be licensed, there are organizations that offer competency certificates, such as the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers.
Employment Opportunities for Ultrasound Technicians
According to the BLS, the number of employed diagnostic medical sonographers is expected to increase up to 44 percent, nationally, during the period of 2010 to 2020 (BLS.gov/ooh). In May 2011, 54,760 diagnostic medical sonographers were employed in the U.S. (BLS.gov/oes), with a national median annual wage of $65,210. Those diagnostic medical sonographers employed in colleges, universities, and professional schools earned the highest annual mean wage — $74,540 — during the same period. States with the highest employment levels in the field include California, Florida, New York, Texas, and Pennsylvania (BLS.gov/oes).
Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012-2013 Occupational Outlook Handbook: Diagnostic Medical Sonographers, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/diagnostic-medical-sonographers.htm
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2011, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292032.htm
Chicago Northwestern University Medill Reports, Ultrasound therapy ‘cooks’ tumors, possibly sparing cancer patients side effects, October 13, 2010, Kirsten Tellam, http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=170314
National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), Resources, Ultrasonography, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/mesh?db=mesh&term=Ultrasonography
Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs, http://www.caahep.org/Find-An-Accredited-Program/