Ultrasound Technologist: Duties, Skills and Education Requirements

The Basics

Often, people need medical care for an illness or internal injury that a doctor can’t accurately diagnose and treat without seeing the source of the problem. In decades past, this meant invasive procedures, or worse, the illness went untreated or even missed entirely.

Today, doctors rely on highly accurate ultrasound machines to allow them to “see” inside a patient’s body without resorting to surgical procedures. Ultrasound technologists are also known as ultrasound technicians and diagnostic medical sonographers. As their title suggests, these professionals use safe, non-invasive ultrasound technology to view and capture still and video images of various internal organs, muscles, and tissues of the human body.

In most cases, ultrasound technologists perform their professional services in medical centers such as hospitals, clinics, and other specialized healthcare centers.

What Does an Ultrasound Technologist Do?

An ultrasound technologist/technician is trained in performing ultrasounds, one of the medical imaging techniques used by physicians to diagnose and treat health disorders.

Ultrasound technologists use instructions from physicians and other healthcare professionals to diagnose a patient’s medical condition. Patients are interviewed and provide a medical history, which is then examined by the ultrasound technologist before the sonogram. An important responsibility of the ultrasound technologist is to calm patients who may be worried about their pending diagnosis. An ultrasound image may be used in conjunction with x-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI’s).

Through the use of high frequency sound waves, ultra sound technologists can view internal organs and other inaccessible body parts from different angles. These captured images and videos are then used to accurately diagnose an illness or condition, confirm a suspected diagnosis, and aid in treatment. In obstetrics, ultrasound is used to safely monitor the progress of a developing fetus without harming either the fetus or the mother.

Despite its technical sounding name, ultrasound technicians aren’t restricted to using only their medical equipment and related instruments. They must also care for patients before, during, and immediately following the ultrasound procedure. The technician must guide and maneuver the patient in various physical positions to ensure a clear, accurate image, but this can become a delicate balancing act when the technician has to simultaneously assure the patient’s comfort and safety.

Once the image or images are recorded, the technician must accurately record the any measurements taken or observations made to prepare an official report for the attending physician.

Depending on the work setting, ultrasound technologists also perform administrative functions such as scheduling patient appointments, logging in patients when they appear and completing forms for billing purposes. They also oversee the ultrasound laboratory operations on a daily basis and check the equipment to resolve issues of malfunction.

If desired, professionals can specialize in many different sub-fields:

  • Obstetric ultrasound technologists use a sonogram machine to monitor the growth of a developing fetus and check for any abnormalities that might pose a problem for the mother and/or the child.
  • Cardiovascular technologists perform non-invasive cardio and peripheral vascular studies.
  • Cardiac sonographers are ultrasound technologists who analyze the heart.
  • Breast sonographers use ultrasound imaging to target certain tissue clusters in the breast to check for diseases like breast cancer.
  • Abdominal sonographers deal with internal organs such as the liver, spleen and kidney.
  • An ultrasound technologist may focus on neurosonography to diagnose problems with the brain and nervous system.

What Skills are Required for an Ultrasound Technologist?

In order to be an effective ultrasound technologist, one must have a variety of skills, all of which must be executed in a compassionate and caring manner.

  • Technical skills are acquired in certificate or degree programs through classroom exercises, lab exercises, and clinical rotations in a healthcare setting.
  • Ultrasound technologists must be able to properly position a patient, apply gel to the patient, and maneuver the transducer in order to view the intended area of the patient’s body.
  • Furthermore, ultrasound technicians must be able to accurately interpret the results of the ultrasound and deliver an initial report to the attending physician. It is also helpful for individuals working in this field to be highly adaptable to changing technologies.

There are interpersonal skills that ultrasound technologies must have to be most effective at their job.

  • They must be excellent communicators, with the ability to confer with patients as well as medical staff. This includes explaining complex medical information to laypersons.
  • Ultrasound technologists must be good listeners and take into account any discomfort, pain, or uncertainties a patient may have before, during, or after the procedure.
  • Having the ability to empathize with others and offer comfort and reassurance are critical skills to have as well.
  • Practical skills are also needed to be a successful ultrasound technologist. Individuals must have good stamina, as many hours are spent on one’s feet, sitting, and bending down.
  • As with any job, time management skills are a must, as there are often patients scheduled for ultrasound procedures one right after another.
  • Likewise, the ability to work independently as well as a member of a team is an integral component of this job.

What is the Career Outlook for Ultrasound Technologists?

As medical technology advances and new innovations constantly enter the healthcare field, new, skilled ultrasound technologists have excellent employment prospects. In 2016, there were approximately 122,300 ultrasound technologists working in the United States; that number could increase by as much as 17% by the year 2026, which is a significantly faster growth rate than many other industries (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

What is the Salary for an Ultrasound Technologist?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a diagnostic medical sonographer is $73,200, as of May 2017. Individuals in the top ten percent salary bracket on average earn over $99,840. Top three paying states for diagnostic medical sonographers are California ($91,700), Hawaii ($90,250) and District of Columbia ($89,140).

What are the Education Requirements to Become an Ultrasound Technologist?

There are two primary pathways that workers can take in order to become an ultrasound technologist. The most common of these pathways is to obtain an associate’s degree. Ultrasound technologist programs are often found at community colleges or technical schools and take approximately two years to complete.

Coursework in associate’s degree programs in this field centers on topics related to pathophysiology, obstetrics, human anatomy, and properly utilizing ultrasound equipment. Much of the initial learning in these subject areas is undertaken in classroom and lab environments. Clinical rotations are also required, which are conducted at local hospitals, medical centers, or clinics.

Another avenue for becoming an ultrasound technologist is to complete a one-year certification program. These programs are designed for individuals that already have a degree in a closely related field, such as nursing. With the prerequisite healthcare and medical courses already completed, individuals who pursue a certificate can complete the necessary specializations in ultrasound technology much more quickly.

Like associate’s degrees in this field, certificate programs are typically offered at a community college or technical school. Additionally, there are similar classroom and lab learning requirements, as well as a clinical period during which students utilize their knowledge and skills in ultrasound technology in a real-world environment with actual patients.

Whether one gets an associate’s degree or completes a certificate program, certification as an ultrasound technologist is an excellent way to further demonstrate one’s depth of knowledge and level of abilities. Many ultrasound technologist programs that are accredited will automatically provide certification, provided the student passes the written certification exam.

The American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography oversees certification for ultrasound technologists. There are a wide variety of specialties in which ultrasound technologists can be certified. Echocardiography, vascular technology, pediatric sonography, and obstetrics and gynecology are some of the primary areas of certification offered.

What is an Online Ultrasound Technologist Program?

In addition to traditional ultrasound technologist programs offered at community colleges and technical schools, there are some online learning options. Although relatively rare, online ultrasound technologist programs offer students a lot of flexibility regarding when, where, and how their learning takes place.

Most online options for ultrasound technology result in one of two degrees: either an Associate’s of Science or an Associate’s of Applied Science. Both degrees usually take two years to complete, much as they do in traditional, on-campus programs. Also like on-campus programs, online ultrasound technology programs include classroom-like courses in anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, and pathophysiology.

Additional coursework might be required in sonographic physics and instrumentation. These courses focus on helping students acquire proficiency in utilizing ultrasound equipment. Likewise, students will learn about the history of sonography, as well as legal and ethical issues that ultrasound technicians may encounter. These courses may occur in a campus laboratory on in a clinical setting. A clinical internship in a medical facility is typically required as part of online programs as well.

One aspect of online ultrasound technologist programs that is critical to check is whether the program is accredited. Often, degrees must be earned through an accredited program to qualify for licensure. Certification eligibility may also depend on holding a degree from an accredited institution.

What are the Disadvantages of Being an Ultrasound Technologist?

While ultrasound technologists do not have to deal with the issue of potential exposure to radiation as other medical imaging technologists do, there are some disadvantages to the position. Ultrasound technologists bear a great deal of responsibility for patient care, since test results are used by physicians to diagnose and treat patients.

Another source of stress is following safety guidelines and monitoring equipment to protect the sonographer and the patient. Ultrasound technologists may suffer from back and leg fatigue from spending long work hours on their feet. Patients with disorders that limit their mobility may have to be lifted or moved by the sonographer.

Many ultrasound technologists work long shifts that can extend into evening and weekend hours, and sonographers who work in hospitals are generally on call for emergency cases.

In addition, ultrasound technologists must learn about advanced technology and best practice procedures by taking continuing education courses.

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