There are approximately 50,000 diagnostic medical sonographers in the United States. Job growth statistics indicate that this work will grow at a rate of 18%, which is considerably faster than the average rate of growth for all jobs. About two-thirds of all sonographers work in hospitals.
Diagnostic medical sonographers produce images in a number of different ways. MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, and x-rays use radiation, ionizing or radio waves to collect information. These methods are familiar to most adults. Sonography, also called ultrasonography, uses sound waves to create images. In addition to the common use of ultrasound technology to image fetal development, sonography is used in a number of different applications. Diagnostic medical sonographers reflect high frequency sound waves into a specific area of the body using specialized medical equipment that gathers the sound waves as they echo back. The machine creates a visual image from the reflected sound waves. These images might be captured in a photograph, a video, or transmitted to another person who is at a different location. These images are read by doctors, and the results aid in their diagnosis of fetal health, tumors, disorders and other medical issues.
- A sonographer’s first task is to take a medical history of all events and information that are relevant. Next, the sonographer arranges the machine settings and instructs the patient about what positions to take or hold for the clearest images. The sonographer manually manipulates a transducer that sends cone-shaped sound waves.
- In most cases, a medical gel is spread on the skin above the area being examined. The gel helps and transducer slide more easily, so the sound waves are better transmitted. While he is operating the transducer, the sonographer is simultaneously studying the screen in order to isolate and focus on areas that may require further investigation.
- After the images are collected, the sonographer reviews them to ensure the quality is such that the doctor who reads them will be able to clearly observe what has been captured. Assuming they are, the sonographer selects the clearest or most accurate images for the physician’s review.
This work involves taking measurements, determining values, and evaluating the images for the doctor. Beyond actually operating ultrasound equipment, sonographers may also assist in decisions regarding new equipment purchases or complete other related tasks.
Some medical sonographers choose to specialize. There are a number of medical conditions that are diagnosed with sound wave technology. OB-GYN departments or clinics use this type of technology not only to monitor fetal development, but to create images of reproductive areas such as the ovaries, fallopian tubes and the uterus. Abdominal sonographers specialize in gathering kidney, liver, spleen, pancreas or gall bladder images, as well as male reproductive organs. Neurosonographers create images of the nervous system, including areas of the brain. Breast sonographers image areas where thickness or lumps have been found to locate and track tumor growth and contribute visual information to a biopsy. The transducers they use are specifically designed for breast tissue. Neonatal neurosonographers focus on a premature baby’s brain and nervous system to discover potential disorders; although they also direct sound waves with transducers, the frequencies and shape of the beam are not the same as what is used by OB-GYN sonographers.
Sonographers spend the greater portion of their time working diagnostic imaging machines in dark rooms. Alternatively, they might take equipment to a patient’s bedside. The work requires considerable standing and walking. Offices and examination rooms are typically very clean and well organized. Some sonographers travel to a number of locations as a contract worker; others use mobile diagnostic imaging machines to service areas lacking a hospital or clinic. Sonographers typically work a regular 40-hour week; sometimes overtime is required. Good manual dexterity, eye- hand coordination, and the ability to remain calm and communicate clearly to patients who may be anxious are desirable characteristics.
There are a number of avenues into the field of diagnostic medical sonography. Most employees prefer job applicants to be educated in an accredited program in a vocational or technical college, hospital, university, or the Armed Forces. Students can earn an associate’s degree in two years, or a bachelor’s in four. A one-year program can be undertaken by those with experience in the medical field; this program earns a certificate. The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) names more than 150 accredited training programs in the United States.
There are no state requirements for licensing, but a number of professional organizations offer the option to graduated sonographers with work experience who take and pass an exam.
One method of advancement is by obtaining a number of certifications in related specialties. Accepting administrative or managerial positions is another way to advance.
The median annual salary for diagnostic medical sonographers is about $62,000. Those in the mid-range earn between $53,000 and $74,000. Those in lowest 10% of the pay spectrum earn about $44,000, while those in the highest 10% earn around $85,000.