Cardiac Sonographer Careers

Overview

Cardiac sonographers constitute one of three types of professionals who use imaging technology to diagnose cardiovascular problems in patients. Unlike the other two types of professionals—EKG technicians and vascular technologists—cardiac sonographers focus their work primarily upon disorders of the heart.

Cardiac sonographers use ultrasound—yes, the same non-evasive tool used for looking at babies—to study and diagnose the heart and any problems associated with it. This test, called an echocardiogram (or echo), lends a detailed look at the heart. The test collects reflected echoes and Doppler signals from the images and spectral tracing of the heart, leaving a picture of the heart on the monitor.

The test takes about a half hour, but the patient doesn’t have to remain still during the testing. It’s a relatively inexpensive test that is gaining in popularity. Sonographers work closely with patients during the procedure, and can even administer medication during it. A sonographer will sometimes team up with a physician during the test to assess the collected data.

Echocardiograms are usually taken at a hospital, but sometimes they’re taken in a private cardiology office or traveling clinic. Qualified practitioners can potentially find work in just about any corner of the country, no matter how sparsely populated it might be.

Job Duties

Most sonographers take about six tests per day, on average. The test involves reviewing the patient’s history, taking the patient’s blood pressure and presenting the findings to family, physicians and staff.

A sonographer often needs to teach student sonographers and medical residents-in-training, while also keeping current with new technologies and medical findings. Because qualified professionals in this field are in limited supply, they sometimes have to travel to smaller hospitals or clinics where a sonographer isn’t available.

Practitioners in this field need to be able to work both independently and as part of a team. They must be courteous and thoughtful of nervous patients who are asking questions during the tests; yet they mustn’t become distracted, which might cause them to miss an important detail of the test results.

One must be versatile enough to deal with all types of people and work settings. They must also have good hand-eye coordination, because they have to be able to react to what they’re seeing on the echocardiogram and then move the equipment to the proper location. They must also be physically strong enough to lift and move patients throughout the day. Some sonographers work on an on-call basis for at least part of the workweek.

Career Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) website, the job outlook for diagnostic medical sonographers is expected to grow 44% from 2010-2020, which is much faster than the average rate for all professions. This BLS site explains that, as ultrasound technology evolves over the next few years, ultrasound will become even more commonly used as a diagnostic tool; this is particularly true since it is much less invasive than many alternative diagnostic methods. The expected big increase in elderly patients over the next ten years, springing from the baby boomer generation, will also raise the demand for sonographers.

Because of the expected growth in outpatient care in the coming years, more sonographers might be needed in doctor’s offices, diagnostic imaging centers and clinics.

Salary Prospects

According to the BLS site, in 2010, the median pay for diagnostic medical sonographers was $64,380 per year or $30.95 per hour. This pay rate is quite high for a medical professional who doesn’t have to go to medical school or earn a bachelor’s degree. One reason for this is that there is currently a shortage of cardiac sonographers, a shortage that is expected to grow in the coming years.

Educational Requirements

Many aspiring cardiac sonographers get their training from a two-year college, attaining an associate’s degree in a sonography program. Others choose a four-year bachelor’s program to acquire a more-rounded education. There are also one-year programs, but these are intended for people with prior experience in a healthcare field like nursing.

Employers prefer sonographers who have a degree or certificate from an accredited college or hospital-based program. These programs normally follow an established, specific program that includes training at an on-site clinic. The curriculum consists mainly of studies in understanding medical terminology, using ultrasound equipment and interpreting echocardiograms.

Though certification isn’t required, most employers prefer certified cardiac sonographers. Many employers require employees to pass the national registry exam, as well as basic life support (BLS) training.

High school students who aspire to become sonographers should take courses in math, physiology, anatomy and biology.

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