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Fastest Way To Become an Ultrasound Tech

By: CareerFactsheet.com- Updated: Jul 17, 2012

It's no secret that the healthcare industry is expected to grow to accommodate the aging baby boomer generation. The need to diagnose ailments ranging from blood clots to breast cancer isn't going to end anytime soon. In fact, employment for ultrasound technicians is expected to increase by 44% by the year 2020 says the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compared to a 26% increase for other health care diagnostic practices, such as x-ray technicians, these numbers are astonishing.

Why such a dramatic difference? With the increase in health care costs and with the continual improvement in sonographic technology, ultrasound examinations are becoming an increasingly viable option for imaging studies. The fact that ultrasound examinations are noninvasive and they don't subject patients to radiation is another added bonus.Additionally, many doctor’s offices are starting to become equipped with ultrasound machines. This allows for quicker appointments and less expensive tests for patients. Outpatient care is also often favored by third-party insurance companies due to the cost savings.

Ultrasound Technician’s Salary

The almost limitless career outlook and growth opportunities in this medical profession is not’t the only good news – According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for ultrasound technicians is $64,380. The statistics also reveal that the lowest 10% earned less than $44,900, and the top 10% made over $80,490.

The following list, taken from the 2012 United States Department of Labor Occupational Handbook shows how your wage as an ultrasound technician can differ depending on the setting:

Annual Ranges Based on Work Setting
Medical and diagnostic labs $62,290
State, local and private hospitals $64,440
Physicians offices $64,560
Outpatient care centers $69,740
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages 2011 for Diagnostic Medical Sonographers

In addition to the type of setting that you work at, your geographic location can also play a major role in your salary, due to the cost of living disparities in the United States.

How to Become an Ultrasound Technician

Now that I've sparked your interest, let's take a closer look at what it takes to become an ultrasound technician. Before you apply to an ultrasound technician program, you will have to complete high school or its equivalent. Recommended high school classes are health, math and life science courses.

After high school, there are several educational paths you can follow:

  • Associates Degree – This is the most common degree for most ultrasound technicians. Associates degree programs typically take anywhere from 18 to 24 months. However, keep in mind these programs may differ depending on the type of school you choose. It's important to investigate any prerequisites that may be required prior to starting the two year Associates Degree program.

  • Certifications – One year certificate programs are also available for aspiring ultrasound technicians; however, they are not usually as competitive as a two-year Associates Degree program. The certificate program is typically more of an option for someone who is already employed in the medical field. Most healthcare workers such as nurses, who decide to take this route, continue to work full time while maintaining just one class per semester.

  • Bachelors Degree – This four year degree program can be useful for ultrasound technicians, who want to benefit from a combination of a liberal arts program and technical training related to their line of work. It is the least common route for most ultrasound technicians; however, it can have an added value for those that want to promote.

No matter what educational avenue you consider, make sure you look into your program’s accreditation with the Commission on Accreditation for Applied Health Education Programs. This institution has accredited over 200 ultrasound technician programs in the United States.

Percentage of employees and their current educational attainment
  Less than high school diploma High school diploma or equivalent Some college, no degree Associate's degree Bachelor's degree Master's degree Doctoral or professional degree
Sonographers 0.5% 9% 21.6% 45% 19.4% 2.2% 2.3%
Source: Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010.

Licensure and Certification for Ultrasound Technicians

Along with education requirements, many ultrasound technician employers also require a professional certification. While there is no official state requirement, attaining your certification can greatly enhance your chances of landing a job.

Those wishing to obtain certification can do so by registering with the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS). To become eligible for registration, you must first complete the appropriate training through an Associates Degree program or a one-year certification program. You will then need to pass as an examination administered by the ARDMS. After successfully passing the test, you will be certified as a Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer.

This required exam focuses on your chosen area of expertise, such as abdominal, cardiac, vascular or breast sonography. Once you become certified -as in all healthcare fields- you will need to participate in continuing education courses throughout your career to maintain this certification.

Work Setting for Ultrasound Technicians

You’ve gone through training and obtained your certification to become an ultrasound technician. What now? There are several settings that you can choose from to begin your career. While more than half of today's ultrasound technicians work in hospitals, according to the Department of Labor, this is not your only option.

Where you are employed as an ultrasound technician, ultimately depends on your chosen specialty. For example, an ultrasound technician who specializes in imaging expectant mothers (obstetrics) often works in a doctor’s office, hospital or mobile imaging unit. This specialty usually handles mothers who are being examined to determine their baby’s development. In most instances, these patients can be examined in any setting by a qualified ultrasound technician.

Conversely, neurological ultrasound technicians typically examine complex cases in a laboratory or hospital environment, due to the sensitive nature of these brain and spinal cord tests.

In rural settings, some ultrasound technicians may be assigned to mobile imaging units. These units consist of large trucks, which carry ultrasound equipment from various locations. They are often in high demand in rural settings because many hospitals can not afford to staff expensive imaging machines.

Outpatient care centers are also frequently staffed by ultrasound technicians. Due to the cost savings of these facilities, they are on the rise and this type of setting is quickly becoming a viable option for many ultrasound technicians.

The work environment for ultrasound technicians is often done in dimly lit rooms and involves frequent one-on-one contact with patients. Many exams are also in hospitals and are usually performed bedside in the patient's room.

Specializations

As a professional ultrasound technician, you will have the luxury to choose from a variety of specializations. Your specialty depends on your interest. Do you get a kick out of delivering the highly anticipated news of telling nervous parents the sex of their baby, or are you intrigued with musculoskeletal sonography, which examines the muscles, tendons and bones of the body? Let’s take a look at some of these options:

  • Vascular Sonography – This type of ultrasound looks at the circulatory system by examining the blood flow through the body's vessels. It is often used to determine if the patient needs an angioplasty due to blood clots in the leg or arms.

  • Neurosonography – This technology investigates the brain and nervous system. During this type of test, the examiner is looking for brain tumors, and any abnormalities in the neck and head area.

  • Abdominal Sonography – This specialization focuses on the kidney, liver, pancreas, spleen, and male reproductive system. This exam uses a doppler to look for damage to liver or other abnormalities in the abdominal region. It's often used after a blood test reveals high liver enzymes.

  • Obstetric Sonography – This type of sonography looks at the female reproductive system. It is often used to determine the health of the mother's fetus during pregnancy. Areas of investigation include: ovaries, cervix, bladder, uterus and fallopian tubes. Gynecological exams often focus on the health of these areas of the female body.

  • Cardiovascular Sonography – This type of exam is often administered in patients suffering from coronary heart disease. Known as a cardiograph, this test examines the health of the heart by looking at the flow of blood into the heart along with the valve function. It can help physicians determine pumping capacity of the patient's heart.

  • Ophthalmology Sonography – This type of ultrasound is used to examine the patient’s eye. This exam uses ultrasound technology to look at cross sectional images of the eye.
Additional Information

Now that you understand the nuts and bolts of this amazing vocation, you may want to take a closer look into this healthcare profession. One of the best sources of information is actual practicing ultrasound technicians. Reach out online through social network sites and the old fashion way – in person. Contact an ultrasound technician and ask them questions about their job. Most people will be flattered you are taking an interest in their line of work.

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