Diagnostic medical sonographers use ultrasound technology to direct sound waves into areas of a patient’s body to generate images for diagnostic purposes. Ultrasound produces moving, visual images of organs, tissues or blood flow. These high energy soundwaves bounce off the structure being examined, creating an echo that is captured by a computer and converted into pictures on a screen. The sonographer records these images for interpretation and diagnosis by a physician.
Diagnostic medical sonographers can specialize in one or more areas: abdomen (liver, kidneys, gallbaldder, spleen, and pancreas); breast; obstetrics/gynecology (developing fetuses and female reproductive system); and neurosonology (brain and spinal cord in infants). “We’re working with newborns on up to geriatric patients,” adds Donald LaFleur, college instructor in diagnostic medical sonography, “so there is a very wide variety, not only of exams, but opportunities for patient interaction.” LaFleur says ultrasound offers direct contact with patients, but on a more minimal level than nursing. “We work with a patient for maybe 30-60 minutes, and then we’re done. But we’ve also had the opportunity to help them. The nice thing with ultrasound is you also get to work with the technology and the science side of things.”
Sonographers must take a thorough patient history, explain the procedure to the patient, and put the patient at ease. They select appropriate equipment settings and move the patient into positions that will provide the best view. When viewing images, the sonographer looks for subtle visual cues that contrast healthy areas with unhealthy ones. They select which images to store for review by the physician, and provide a detailed written or oral summary of the technical findings for medical diagnosis.
- Hospitals and medical centers
- Diagnostic imaging centers
- Physician offices
- Outpatient care centers
Hospitals are the principal employer of diagnostic medical sonographers, but as healthcare delivery moves more to outpatient care, there will be more and more positions located in imaging centers, physician offices, and outpatient care settings. Ultrasound exams are usually conducted in darkened rooms to allow the best possible viewing of images, although exams may be done at a patient’s bedside. Most sonographers work a typical 40 hour work week. However, those who work in hospitals or facilities with extended hours, may have weekend, evening, or on-call hours.
Employment of diagnostic medical sonographers is expected to increase by 18 percent between 2008 and 2018, faster than average for all occupations. Growth in this field will come with an expanding elderly population, who require more tests than other ages. Growth is also expected as healthcare providers increasingly utilize ultrasound imaging as a safer and more cost-effective alternative to more expensive procedures. As the technology continues to evolve, new procedures are expected to emerge, enabling sonographers to scan areas of the body where ultrasound has not been traditionally used. Sonographers with multiple specialties or multiple credentials also will have the best prospects. There are also opportunities beyond the clinical setting for experienced diagnostic medical sonographers, according to college instructor, Donald LaFleur. “You could become an application specialist, where you would be doing the training [on ultrasound machines], you could be setting up training programs, or you could get into sales. Then there’s also education.”
- Ability to work with a variety of people
- Good communication skills
- Detail oriented
- Good manual dexterity, space and form perception, and ability to see differences in objects
- Physical stamina to move equipment, help move or turn disabled patients
- Ability to learn scientific as well as mechanical information
Programs in diagnostic medical sonography vary in length, but are typically 2-year associate or 4-year bachelor’s degree programs. Coursework includes classes in anatomy, physiology, instrumentation, basic physics, patient care and medical ethics. Training also includes many hours of skills lab training, and supervised on-the-job clinical work. College instructor and diagnostic medical sonographer, Julie Morbach, says she enjoys, “watching the light come on. You know when [students] start the program, it’s overwhelming. They’re learning how to hold that little transducer. But once that kind of clicks with them, and they actually start feeling confident about seeing what they’ve been learning in class, it just starts to come natural and it starts to flow for them.”
Licensing is not required, but to demonstrate proficiency, a person must take the national certifying exams from the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers. Sonographers can seek advancement by obtaining competency in more than once specialty (abdomen, breast, ob/gyn, neurosonology). They may also seek multiple credentials – for example, being both a registered diagnostic medical sonographer and a registered cardiac sonographer.
Programs in Nebraska
Related / Links
Careers with similar diagnostic and treatment responsibilities:
- Cardiac/Vascular sonographer
- Clinical laboratory scientist/medical technologist
- Invasive cardiovascular technologist
- Nuclear medicine technologist
- Radiologic technologist
For information on a career as a diagnostic medical sonographer:
For information on becoming a registered diagnostic medical sonographer:
For a list of accredited programs in diagnostic medical sonography:
- Joint Review Committee on Education in Diagnostic Medical Sonography
- Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs
Career information adapted in part from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handook, 2010-2011 Edition, Diagnostic Medical Sonographers, on the Internet at www.bls.gov