Is This Career for Me? A Day in the Life of a Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
What on earth is a “diagnostic medical sonographer” and what do they do? While you may have never heard of this exact term before, you probably know what they do (and may even have had an appointment with one before). A diagnostic medical sonographer is the official term for an ultrasound technician or ultrasonographer. These medical professionals prepare patients and/or capture images before a physician or radiologist comes in to see a patient. Ultrasound machines use sound waves above the threshold of human hearing (approximately 20,000 Hz) to map soft tissue within the body.
Typical duties of a diagnostic medical sonographer include:
- Preparing patients: escorting patients to the treatment room, explaining the ultrasound process, calling in the doctor
- Analyzing results: making sure the images meet quality standards, recording the number/type/content of images taken
- Operating and maintaining equipment: preparing ultrasound machines before use, cleaning and calibrating the machines after use, performing routine maintenance and notifying professional technicians when issues arise
- Keeping records: documenting each patient visit
Many offices and hospitals schedule patients every 30 minutes, but this schedule can vary based on where you work. For example, diagnostic medical sonographers who work in a hospital may be called in to the emergency department to perform ultrasounds at the last minute. Given the demand for ultrasound techs, many of them are hired on a full-time basis and work regular business hours. However, some of them may be hired on a part-time basis and/or work untraditional hours on nights, weekends and holidays.
To conduct an ultrasound, you’ll usher the patient back into a room and probably have them change into a gown that will expose whatever body part you need to image. You’ll double check that the machine is calibrated and ready to go. Then, you’ll apply conductive jelly to their body and pass the transducer (a.k.a. ultrasound wand) over the whole area to form a complete image. Finally, you’ll analyze the image or call in a physician or radiologist to do so.
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So that’s a typical day in the life of a diagnostic medical sonographer. Here are other need-to-know facts about becoming an ultrasound technician.
You’ll Interact With Patients A Lot
No matter what kind of facility you work in or whether or not you specialize, all ultrasound tech jobs have one thing in common: lots of facetime with patients. The job is very hands-on (quite literally) so you need to be comfortable interacting closely with others. Many patients are also anxious, since ultrasounds are ordered as part of medical tests, so diagnostic medical sonographers must keep them calm and reassure them as they seek to get a clear sonogram. However, there are happy moments as well, such as being with a new mom when she sees a sonogram of her baby for the first time.
You Can Work in a Variety of Settings
Ultrasound technicians can and do work at hospitals, but other options are available. Some diagnostic medical sonographers work in a standalone imaging lab devoted solely to ultrasounds and similar technology. Still others may work in a specialty practice, OB/GYN being the most common. Over the course of their careers, many ultrasound techs can and do switch between different work environments. (Some ultrasound techs even visit patients at home or help expecting mothers learn how to use an at home fetal doppler.)
You May See Many Different Types of Patients
The “typical” ultrasound that comes to mind is a pregnant patient getting a checkup, but there are many applications for ultrasounds beyond seeing how a fetus is developing (though, of course, that’s very important!). Especially if you work in a hospital, you may perform ultrasounds for many different purposes, which may include:
- Obstetric imaging: tracking a fetus’ development, diagnosing prenatal problems and determining the baby’s sex
- Soft-tissue analysis: imaging the liver, kidneys, other organs, muscles, tendons and ligaments to visualize tumors or other abnormalities and to diagnose diseases in the soft tissues
- Therapeutic treatment: targeting soft tissues with ultrasound projections to break up blockages in blood vessels or other harmful buildups
- Dental treatment: cleaning teeth and sometimes even stimulating tooth and bone regrowth
You Might Specialize
You can pursue several different specialties in diagnostic sonography. Obstetrics is perhaps the most common, and focuses on tracking the development of babies and diagnosing potential problems. Other imaging specialties are much more focused on detecting and treating diseases, in particular cancer. One of those specialties is abdominal sonography, which focuses on the liver, kidneys, gallbladder, pancreas, and male reproductive parts.
Given the rising rates of heart disease, ultrasound technicians specializing in adult echocardiography are in increasingly high demand. Breast sonographers target and treat breast cancer, and sometimes use specific machinery. Neurosonographers image the brain and nervous system and also use their own machinery with different wavelengths. Depending on where you live, the requirements to become a neurosonographer may be more rigorous than other specialties.
The Job Outlook is Good
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs for diagnostic medical sonographers and cardiovascular technologists and technicians will grow by 17%from 2016 to 2026. This is a full 10 percentage points higher than the average growth rate for all occupations. The median annual wage for a diagnostic medical sonographer is also significantly higher than it is for other jobs. Ultrasound technicians made a median annual wage of $67,080 in 2018, compared to a median annual wage for all workers of $38,640. Given that many ultrasound tech jobs only require an associate degree to get started, this high median wage is often accompanied by less student debt – another bonus.
For those who love the medical profession and working with people, becoming a diagnostic medical sonographer can be a fulfilling career that’s both financially and emotionally rewarding. If a day in the life of a diagnostic medical sonographer sounds appealing to you, consider looking into training and certification in your area. As those BLS statistics show, the United States needs more ultrasound technicians, and you can make a difference in patients’ lives by becoming one.
Deborah Swanson is a Coordinator for the Real Caregivers Program at allheart.com, a site dedicated to celebrating medical professionals and their journeys. She keeps busy interviewing caregivers and writing about them and loves gardening.
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