Ultrasound Technicians and Sonographers
Sonography utilizes sound waves to generate an image that can be analyzed to determine or rule out a diagnosis. It is most well known for its use in obstetrics and the ability to visualize the fetus at varying points during a pregnancy. However, sonography is useful in many other specialties, such as abdominal, breast, brain (neurological), and vascular studies. Cardiovascular sonography and echocardiography is another specialty that requires additional training.
Sound waves are bounced off of the organs, and the reflections or echoes that are returned are converted into an image that reveals data about the contour, composition, and structure of parts of the body such as organs, vessels, nerves, and systems. Sonograms reveal information about these structures as well as any abnormalities, like tumors, cysts, and blockages.
Duties, Activities, and Scope of Practice
The sonographer takes a brief medical history from the patient and then prepares the patient by explaining this safe and relatively noninvasive procedure. The sonographer positions the patient and drape for privacy as needed, exposing only the area they need to access. The equipment is selected according to the tests ordered and is set to the appropriate levels. A gel is applied to the skin, and the sonographer presses a transducer unit onto the skin. While viewing the images on a monitor screen, the sonographer moves the transducer slowly to obtain an image of the entire area.
The sonographer has to have a clear understanding of such things as normal and abnormal function and shape of the bodily structures being studied. They also have to be able to recognize obstructions and the often subtle difference between pathological and healthy tissues. Sonographers need to be discreet and leave final diagnosis and discussion to the physician.
Newer technology allows the sonographer to produce a video-like image for the physician to review. However, still images are also captured from the equipment, and the sonographer identifies key elements. They will take measurements and calculate values to report to the physician along with their own preliminary analysis.
Education and Training
Training is available from hospitals, vocational schools, colleges and universities, and the armed forces. Programs are from one to four years in length and offer certificates for the one-year, associate's degrees for the two-year, and bachelor's degrees for the four-year programs. Accredited programs are approved by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).
Formal classroom education as well as supervised clinical experience is provided at all levels. The one-year programs are only open to allied health care professionals, such as R.N.s, respiratory therapists, or radiology technologists. Some other programs also only accept candidates who are allied health professionals.
The curriculum includes anatomy and physiology, histology, medical ethics, pathology, and psychology. It also includes acoustical physics, principles of ultrasound, operation, calibration, and quality controls of the equipment, imaging and display techniques, and the biological effects of ultrasound.
Specialization programs are typically one year long, in addition to the basic education, and cover the anatomy, physiology, function, and pathology of the organ systems involved for such areas as obstetrics and gynecology, neurology, and breast and abdominal sonography.
There are no requirements for licensure or certification at the current time. Employers do show a preference for hiring professionals who have demonstrated their competency by obtaining registration. Registration is available through the American Registry for Diagnostic Sonography (ARDMS). Candidates must have completed an accredited program and satisfied requirements of employment in the field. They must pass an exam covering the general principles and instrumentation involved in sonography. They also have to pass an exam specific to the specialization. Registered sonographers may use the designation R.D.M.S. (registered diagnostic medical sonographer). More information is available from their Web site:
Work Settings and Salaries
Sonography does not involve radiation, so the effects of ionization are not an issue. Most sonographers work in hospital settings and therefore may need to work day, evening, or night shifts, and some weekends and holidays. They may also have to be on call.
Others work in offices of physicians, medical diagnostic and imaging laboratories, clinics, and other ambulatory care settings.
The median salary as reported by the U.S. Department of Labor for 2004 was $52,490. Salaries typically ranged from $37,800 to $72,230 per year. Those with other allied health credentials typically earned more than those without.
Career Potential and Additional Information
Sonography technology is evolving rapidly primarily because of its safe and noninvasive properties. Some of this will be slowed by cost-containment measures, but it will continue to be a fast-growing occupation. With shifts toward outpatient services, growth is expected to be more rapid in these areas than for hospitals. Overall, opportunities for sonographers are expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations over the next decade.
More information about careers in medical sonography is available from the Society of Medical Sonography. Their Web site is