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Occupational Guide: Diagnostic Medical Sonographer

Occupational Guide: Diagnostic Medical Sonographer

The healthcare sector is enormously appealing for people looking to begin a new career for good reason. It’s dynamic, impactful and growing. What worries many is the prospect of going to medical school. The good news is that there are many well-paying and fast-growing careers that don’t require years at an expensive medical school.

One of the best you’ll find is diagnostic medical sonography. For anyone looking for a rewarding career in allied healthcare, or a career change later in life, it’s undoubtedly one of the best options out there. Here’s why:

What Is Diagnostic Medical Sonography?

Obviously, this is the first question you’ll need to answer if you’re interested in the field. Essentially, you’re a bit like a medical superhero with X-ray vision. The difference is that instead of using X-rays, you use sound waves (which is great for everyone, as they’re much safer).

Sounds like a pretty loud job. It would be, except that these sound waves are greater than 20,000 Hz, so they’re not audible to humans. That’s why they’re also called ultrasounds: The “ultra” part refers to the high frequencies of the soundwaves involved.

Okay, but how do sound waves allow diagnostic medical sonographers to view the inside of the human body?

Like Sonar, But Far More Precise

You’re probably familiar with how sonar works for submarines and other naval ships. They send out sound waves and measure them when they return to determine how large objects are and how far away they are.

The difference is that sonar generally uses very low frequencies, often as low as 5 Hz. This is in part because these waves need to travel across vast expanses of ocean water.

With ultrasounds, on the other hand, the sound waves only need to travel a few inches and back. This in part allows them to use high frequencies for extreme levels of precision.

Like Sonar, But Far More Precise

This arthrogramis a great example of ultrasound’s superior precision and penetration properties. Photo by Zezounet / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA

Sonar and ultrasounds are doing slightly different things. Sonar is mostly concerned with the overall outer shape of an object, while ultrasounds need to peer inside of a person and tell the difference between fluid, muscles, bone and organs.

That is the most amazing part of the entire process.

The Miracle of Seeing Inside of a Person

The Miracle of Seeing Inside of a Person

wistechcolleges / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND

By blasting someone’s insides with these high frequency sound waves and precisely measuring how and when those waves return to the sensor, ultrasound technology can give us an incredibly precise picture of a person’s insides.

But there are actually many different types of ultrasounds for different tasks.

A Few Examples

This technology can show active blood flow, the presence of blood that isn’t flowing, how stiff tissue is (useful in cancer diagnoses), the anatomy of a particular organ in three dimensions, or even the types of molecules present.

It’s a truly amazing array of capabilities for a single type of machine. This also means that diagnostic medical sonographers could end up examining any of these in their day-to-day work.

If you’re curious to read an even more detailed breakdown of the various types of ultrasounds which exist, give this article a read. Of course, once you’re looking at only the medical field, a common question that arises is the difference between a sonogram and an ultrasound.

Sonogram vs Ultrasound: What’s the Difference?

Sonogram vs Ultrasound: What’s the Difference?

N A I T / Flickr / CC BY-ND

One common point of confusion lies in the difference between the terms ultrasound and sonogram. Though they are related to the same procedure, they are not the same.

The word “ultrasound” refers to the procedure itself: that is, having gel applied to the relevant part of the body while a wand is applied to view what’s inside. Once this is done, the image that’s produced is referred to as a sonogram. So to summarize, an ultrasound produces a sonogram.

In practice, diagnostic medical sonographers and ultrasound technicians are functionally the same job. The two titles are often used interchangeably. In many cases, you’ll do coursework to obtain certification as a diagnostic medical sonographer and then get a job as an ultrasound technologist..

What Does a Diagnostic Medical Sonographer Do?

Okay, now you have a firm grounding in the science of ultrasound machines and diagnostic medical sonography as a discipline. The next question is: what does the daily work of a person with this career actually look like?

Working Hours

First, in general, diagnostic medical sonographers work a full 40-hour workweek. This is in part owing to the high demand for the profession (more on that later).

It is still possible to work part time, though in this case you can expect to work nights, weekends, and holidays, as keeping a regular schedule for the full-time workers in the field is generally a higher priority for employers.

Types of Employers and Workplaces

A Diagnostic Medical Sonographer’s Work Environment

thinkpanama / Flickr / CC BY-NC

So who are those employers? Essentially, the same kinds of places you can expect to work in most allied healthcare careers. Hospitals, imaging centers, physicians’ clinics, outpatient facilities, and mobile companies are some of the most common places. The good news is that you’re not limited to a single type of employer.

If you’d like to have options, chances are there are several facilities of these types in the area where you live. This kind of flexibility is an important point for many considering the career, particularly if they don’t want to have to move to a new area to find employment.

A Diagnostic Medical Sonographer’s Work Environment

Does the kind of work you can expect to do every day as a diagnostic medical sonographer vary tremendously between the types of work environments mentioned above? In general, no.

Whether you’re working with the elderly in a nursing home or young people in a children’s hospital, the procedure of working with ultrasound technology is largely the same (plus or minus trying to keep a child happy while you work.)

One exception might be for those who work mainly with a pregnancy ultrasound. While the procedure, in that case, isn’t much different, it can’t be denied that there’s a certain level of joy in helping parents see their children for the first time, as opposed to largely working to diagnose illnesses.

A Typical Meeting With a Patient

The typical appointment will have you explaining to patients how the procedure works, applying gel, and using the wand of the ultrasound machine to produce images. After that, depending on the procedure in your workplace, you might be more or less involved in the actual diagnosis of any issues in conjunction with a doctor.

Overall, diagnostic medical sonography has been rated the 2nd least stressful job of 2016.

It also rounded off our own list of the 6 least stressful medical jobs just a few months ago.

Diagnostic Medical Sonographer Salary

Here’s more good news about this career. In 2015, the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics assessed the median income of a diagnostic medical sonographer to be around $68,970 per year. That translates into more than $30 per hour.

Compare this to the median wages for all health technologists and technicians at $42,190 and all other occupations in the US at $36,200 and it’s clear why this is an attractive field. In fact, we named it one of the highest-paying allied health careers.

Median incomes well above that of similar occupations and nearly double that of all US occupations certainly sound great for those looking to start a career or find a new one later in life, but how difficult is it to find employment as a diagnostic medical sonographer?

Quick hint: there’s even more good news there.

Rising Demand

Rising Demand

COD Newsroom / Flickr / CC BY

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects demand for diagnostic medical sonographers to rise by a shocking 26% from 2014 to 2024.

Again, if we compare this to all health technologists and technicians in the US, the rise in demand there over the same period is projected to be just 16%. Looking at all US occupations, the number is just 7%.

Clearly, diagnostic medical sonography is experiencing one of the highest demands for new workers of any field in the entire United States. So, with far above average salaries as well as hiring, what’s stopping you from entering this career for yourself?

Now it’s time to break down exactly what’s required to obtain all the necessary certifications and get yourself hired.

What Are the Major Steps to Becoming a Diagnostic Medical Sonographer?

First, you’ll need an appropriate level of education before you begin. In contrast with many other allied healthcare careers, a high school diploma isn’t sufficient.

While you don’t need to complete a degree beforehand, some university education is necessary. For a CAAHEP accredited program, you’ll need to meet the following requirements:

  • A college-level communications or English course (or equivalent)
  • A college-level algebra, statistics, or higher level math course
  • A college-level general physics or radiographic physics course
  • A college-level human anatomy and physiology course (or courses) that covers all body systems

Fortunately, these college-level requirements can be fulfilled in a semester at a community college for relatively low cost, if you didn’t complete a university science degree. If you did complete a degree, however, it will help. In general, it’s not too difficult to prepare yourself for an accredited diagnostic medical sonography school.

Other Requirements

Still, it has to be mentioned that the high demand and high salary of this career means that applications can be highly competitive.

As such, having an associate degree, patient care experience in another medical field, or being a certified medical assistant are all very helpful toward making your application more competitive.

Once you’re accepted, most accredited programs take approximately 2 years to complete. The training will include a significant amount of hands-on training as well as clinical experience.

Certification for Ultrasound Technologists

Over the course of your studies, you’ll have the opportunity to take the Sonography Principles & Instrumentation (SPI) exam, as well as the Abdomen (AB) and Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN) specialty examinations offered by the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS).

Graduates who pass the aforementioned exams can earn the Registered Diagnostic Medical Songrapher (RDMS) credential. Most major hospitals and imaging centers only hire certified sonographers, so getting certified by ARDMS is essential.


Interested in learning more about this field or exploring financing and course options for getting your certification?

You can find all that information and more at our Diagnostic Medical Sonography program page. Don’t hesitate to get in touch!

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