Going by titles like ultrasound technician, cardiac sonographer and vascular technologist, diagnostic medical sonographers perform different functions with one common purpose: They provide a window to the inside workings of the body and play a critical role in helping physicians evaluate, diagnose and treat patients.
At a time in which Americans are living longer and chronic health conditions are on the rise, demand for diagnostic medical sonographers is expected to climb an impressive 46 percent nationwide from 2012 to 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That makes it the sixth fastest growing occupation in the country, and means plenty of job opportunities could await new grads in the field.
"I graduated from school in December and started working a week later," says Shelley Heussner, a Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer based in Petoskey, Mich.
One career, many specialties
Diagnostic medical sonography encompasses a number of specialties. Obstetrics ultrasound technicians, who help monitor fetal development, are probably the most widely known professionals in the field. They use non-invasive technology to capture images of babies in the womb, allowing physicians and expecting parents to see a child before it's born.
However, this isn't the only application for sonography technology. The American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography offers four credentials for sonographers that span seven practice specialties:
- Obstetrics and gynecology
- Vascular technology
A sonographer's work day varies depending on their specialty or employer. Heussner splits her time between a heart and vascular services office and the local hospital.
"I might stay in the clinic area all day with patients, typically seeing one per hour, or I may go down to the hospital and do inpatient imaging," she says. "Sometimes I travel to another clinic and do tests there."
Ready to work in two years?
For students exploring their career options, diagnostic medical sonography may be an attractive choice, in part because individuals can potentially be ready to enter the field in two years.
"An associate's degree is the normal education," explains Heussner. "You can go up to a bachelor's degree, but most people do an AAS and that's all companies really want."
The Society for Diagnostic Medical Sonography recommends students look for an accredited program, such as one approved by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. The CAAHEP currently accredits diagnostic sonography programs in 43 states and the District of Columbia, including several online degree options.
Credentials may lead to higher income
After graduation, individuals may want to apply for one or more of the ARDMS certifications. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the median annual wage for diagnostic medical sonographers in the U.S. was $65,860 in 2012, the SDMS says certification could lead to a higher income.
Currently, the ARDMS offers the following credentials to sonographers:
- Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer (RDMS)
- Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer (RDCS)
- Registered Vascular Technologist (RVT)
- Registered in Musculoskeletal (RMSK)
The 2013 SDMS Sonographer Salary and Benefits Survey found having multiple certifications was linked to higher base salaries among those surveyed. Specifically, those with a combination of the RDMS, RDCS and RVT credentials reported the highest median annual salaries. Looking at the certifications individually, SDMS data indicates the RDCS may be the most profitable.
Is a career in sonography right for you?
Heussner advises students exploring their career options to shadow sonographers in several specialties to find the right fit.
"I always knew I wanted something in medical, but I was never sure exactly what I wanted until I job shadowed," she explains. "As soon as I shadowed in cardiac, I knew that's what I wanted."
As for her job today, Heussner says even though she is imaging hearts all day, everyone's heart is different and each patient's situation is unique, which makes for a work day that is anything but tedious.
"I love my job," she says. "Talking with the patients, seeing what's going on with their hearts… it's so fascinating."
If working closely with patients in a dynamic medical environment sounds like an engaging career path, you could be just two short years away from having one of the hottest jobs in the country.
Shelley Heussner, Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer
Kelly G. Stafford, Director of Communication & Marketing for the Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography
"So you want to be a sonographer…," Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography, http://www.sdms.org/career/career.asp (Accessed 2/19/2014)
CAAHEP Accredited Program Search, Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs, http://www.caahep.org/Find-An-Accredited-Program/
Diagnostic Medical Sonographers and Cardiovascular Technologists and Technicians, Including Vascular Technologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/diagnostic-medical-sonographers.htm
Fastest Growing Occupations, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/fastest-growing.htm
Credentials & Examinations, American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography, http://www.ardms.org/credentials_examinations/ (Accessed 2/19/2014)