Sonographers are allied health professionals who work in a variety of health care settings. These technicians use ultrasound in order to help doctors provide a diagnosis and treatment plan for their patients. Due to the important role a sonographer plays, salaries can be quite lucrative, but the importance of their work also demands the technician to have adequate education and training, both in the classroom and in clinical trials outside of the classroom.
Length and Types of Programs
Sonographer programs are available at community colleges, hospitals, vocational schools and universities.
Many different educational paths exist to becoming a sonographer. While the most common degree program available is a 2 year associate’s degree program, those programs may not be open to everyone. Because the amount of knowledge that the students are expected to master in a two year program is so great, many associate degree programs require prospective students to have previous education in another allied health field. The other allied health field may be nursing, medical technology, radiology, or a similar field. Primarily, the two year programs look for candidates that previous college level course work in patient care.
Not all associate degree programs require prospective students to have a previous health care background. They will vary by state and by educational institution. Some colleges have a “regular” associate program for people with a previous health care background and a specialized associate’s program for people who do not have any previous allied health experience. Those without experience can expect to take more classes and take longer than the standard two year degree.
Another route to becoming a sonographer is the bachelor’s degree. These programs typically do not require any previous educational coursework in an allied health field, as they are designed to take four years to finish.
As with other health care occupations, sonographers can generalize their practice or choose a specialization. Specializations include:
1. Obstetric and gynecological sonography, which focuses on the female reproductive system.
2. Abdominal sonography, which focuses on the liver, pancreas, gallbladder and spleen
3. Neurosongraphy, which focuses on the nervous system.
4. Breast sonography
5. Cardiac or vascular sonography, which focus on the heart and vascular system.
Many degree programs offer course work in general diagnostic medical sonography. The traditional specialization route is to gain a degree in general sonography first, and to take a specialized certification course in the area of interest.
Accreditation, Certification and Registration
Being a registered or certified sonographer was not always required. However, employers are moving increasingly towards only hiring graduates who are registered or hold certifications. Different bodies and different accreditations affect which exams a graduate can take and what they can become certified in.
While the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonographers is not an accrediting institution, it does offer examinations to qualified students. These exams, if passed, help document a person’s aptitude in sonography as reflected against a set of industry standards. The ARDMS provides exams in general diagnostic medical sonography as well as in certain subfields of specialization.
The ARDMS has created a helpful prerequisite chart that outlines various pathways to certifications under their umbrella. These include things like having schooling from an allied health education program that is patient-care related (e.g., physical or occupational therapy), as well as demonstrable full-time clinical ultrasound or vascular experience. Requirements vary depending on the type of certification that one desires, so it’s important to read up before applying to take an exam.
Specifically, the ARDMS has a few different types of credentials and examinations that it offers.
Speciality examinations that lead to the Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer credential:
Speciality examinations that lead to the Registered in Muskuloskeletal credential:
Speciality examinations that lead to the Registered Physician in Vascular Interpretation credential:
To prepare oneself for a sonography program, one should take high school courses in both biological and physical sciences. Algebra and computer courses will also help prepare a high school student for their coursework. Having excellent hand-eye coordination and social skills are required for anyone hoping to finish a sonographer degree program.
Depending on whether the program is an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree, sonography students will take courses in anatomy and physiology, physics, patient care, ethics of medicine, English composition, sociology, psychology, history and public speaking. These courses are generally taken in the earliest stages of the college career. Advanced courses include courses in each of the specialization fields of sonography, as well as advanced physics and obstetrics.
Regardless of whether the student attends a 2 year or 4 year educational program, practical experience in a clinical lab setting will be a required part of the curricula. The amount of clinical hours varies, depending on the program.
Some programs require students to take clinical hours during the school year, while others require clinical lab to take place as part of an internship taken during the summer break. Either way, the hours students spend in the lab provide an increasing familiarity with the lab equipment, greater understanding of patient care and experience with the role a sonographer plays as part of the medical team.