What does a diagnostic medical sonographer do?
A diagnostic medical sonographer, also known simply as a sonographer, uses imaging equipment and soundwaves to form images of many parts of the body, known as ultrasounds. They are trained to acquire and analyze these sonographic images. These images are used to help doctors diagnose and treat many medical conditions.
Since ultrasound is a non-invasive way to visualize internal organs, it is often the first imaging test performed when disease is detected. Diagnostic medical sonographers, therefore, have an important role in conducting and interpreting initial imaging tests that may help narrow down a patient’s diagnosis and quickly get them the care they need.
Scope of practice
Typical job duties, roles, and responsibilities of a diagnostic medical sonographer include:
- Operating imaging equipment, and reviewing images to be sure they are of good quality and helpful for diagnosis
- Identifying normal and abnormal imaging results, communicating a summary of the results to physicians or other health professionals, and alerting physicians to urgent problems
- Preparing patients for procedures and educating patients throughout the ultrasound exam
- Reviewing patient medical history, recording imaging results in patient records, and coordinating care with various departments within the hospital or clinic
Diagnostic medical sonographers work with doctors, nurses, and patients of all ages, from infants to the elderly. Similar diagnostic imaging roles include magnetic resonance imaging technologists and radiation technologists, who assist with conducting and interpreting MRI scans and X-rays, respectively.
Diagnostic medical sonographers can specialize in a variety of areas. For example, vascular technologists create images of blood vessels, while obstetric and gynecologic sonographers specialize in imaging the female reproductive system. Other specialized sonographers may focus on imaging the abdomen, musculoskeletal system, or blood vessels. A sonographer who focuses on imaging the heart is called an echocardiographer, and they provide visualizations of patients’ heart valves and cardiac arteries. While some employers may want specialized sonographers, many general sonographer positions will require imaging experience in several of these areas.
Diagnostic medical sonographers are often found performing ultrasound procedures at a patient’s bedside, but also may work with imaging machines in a dedicated room within the hospital or clinic. Most diagnostic medical sonographers work full time, and some may be asked to work evenings, weekends, or on holidays depending on their employer. Often, the role requires you to be on your feet for most of the work day.
While diagnostic medical sonographers work predominantly in hospitals, they can also be employed in doctors’ offices and medical and diagnostic labs. The role of a diagnostic medical sonographer typically does not differ greatly whether you work at a hospital, clinic, or specialized lab, however you might encounter a broad range of disease states, or would be able to specialize, if you work for a large hospital or health system.
Becoming a diagnostic medical sonographer
In order to be a successful medical diagnostic sonographer, it is helpful to love anatomy, be detail oriented, and have precise attention to imaging protocols, as well as a keen eye for subtle changes in imaging results. Interpersonal skills are important for working with diverse patient populations and for communicating imaging results clearly to other health professionals. A career as a medical diagnostic sonographer may be a good fit for people who want to gain highly technical skills but also work closely with people each day. The position combines focused medical knowledge, hand-eye coordination, and a motivation to get patients the medical care they need.
Higher education requirements
There are many educational pathways to becoming a diagnostic medical sonographer. After high school, the typical pathway includes:
- Obtaining either an associate degree or bachelor's degree, with coursework in the sciences and anatomy.
- Completing a certificate program in diagnostic medical sonography. Certificate programs are both educational courses specific to diagnostic medical sonography training as well as clinical experiences. Certificate programs are available through colleges, universities, and teaching hospitals.
Certification for a diagnostic medical sonographer
In addition, many employers also require candidates to have completed a professional sonography certification as well as basic life support training, or complete certification soon after hire. There are several organizations that offer certification for sonographers, including the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonographers (ARDMS), Cardiovascular Credentialing International, and American Registry of Radiologic Technologists. Most certified diagnostic medical sonographers will practice under the title, registered diagnostic medical sonographer (R.D.M.S), which some will also receive advanced certifications.
Career outlook for a diagnostic medical sonographer
With a large aging population, the need to diagnose medical conditions using affordable imaging technology is likely to increase. Sonographers are needed to provide an alternative to radiation imaging techniques. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects this profession to grow much faster than average over the next decade. The average salary for a diagnostic medical sonographer is $71,000, with that figure dependant on experience, certification, and location.
With additional training and education, some sonographers may move into supervisory positions or become an advanced sonographer. Earning an advanced degree will allow some sonographers to become educators and researchers.