Diagnostic medical sonographers and cardiovascular technologists and technicians, including vascular technologists, operate special imaging equipment to create images or conduct tests. The images and test results that diagnostic imaging workers produce help physicians assess and diagnose medical conditions. Some technologists assist physicians and surgeons during surgical procedures.

Duties

Diagnostic medical sonographers and cardiovascular technologists and technicians, including vascular technologists, typically do the following:

  • Prepare patients for procedures by taking a patient’s history and answering any questions about the procedure
  • Prepare and maintain diagnostic imaging equipment
  • Operate equipment to obtain diagnostic images or conduct tests
  • Analyze the images or test results to check for quality and adequate coverage of the areas needed for diagnoses
  • Recognize the difference between normal and abnormal images and other diagnostic information
  • Analyze diagnostic information to provide a summary of findings for physicians
  • Record findings and keep track of patients’ records

Diagnostic medical sonographers specialize in creating images of the body’s organs and tissues.  The images are known as sonograms (or ultrasounds). Sonograms are often the first imaging test performed when disease is suspected. Diagnostic medical sonographers may work closely with physicians or surgeons before, during, and after procedures.  The following are examples of types of diagnostic medical sonographers:

  • Abdominal sonographers specialize in imaging a patient’s abdominal cavity and nearby organs, such as the kidney, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, or spleen. Abdominal sonographers may assist with biopsies or other examinations requiring ultrasound guidance.
  • Breast sonographers specialize in imaging a patient’s breast tissues. Sonography can confirm the presence of cysts and tumors that may have been detected by the patient, physician, or a mammogram. Breast sonographers work closely with physicians and assist with procedures that track tumors and help to provide information for making decisions about the best treatment options for breast cancer patients.
  • Musculoskeletal sonographers specialize in imaging muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joints. These sonographers may assist with ultrasound guidance for injections, or during surgical procedures, that deliver medication or treatment directly to affected tissues.  
  • Neurosonographers specialize in imaging a patient’s nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord. Many diseases they image are associated with premature births or birth defects. They may work closely with pediatricians and other caregivers. 
  • Obstetric and gynecologic sonographers specialize in imaging the female reproductive system. Many pregnant women receive sonograms to track the baby's growth and health. Obstetrical sonographers work closely with physicians in detecting congenital birth defects.

Diagnostic sonography uses high-frequency sound waves to produce images of the inside of the body. The sonographer uses an instrument called an ultrasound transducer on the parts of the patient’s body that are being examined. The transducer emits pulses of sound that bounce back, causing echoes. The echoes are then sent to the ultrasound machine, which processes them and displays them as images used by physicians for diagnosis.

Cardiovascular technologists and technicians create images, conduct tests, or assist with surgical procedures involving the heart. The following are examples of types of cardiovascular technologists and technicians:

  • Cardiac sonographers (echocardiographers) specialize in imaging a patient’s heart and use ultrasound equipment to examine the heart’s chambers, valves, and vessels. The images are known as echocardiograms. The echocardiogram procedure may be done while the patient is either resting or after being physically active. Cardiac sonographers also may take echocardiograms of fetal hearts so that physicians can diagnose cardiac conditions during pregnancy. Cardiac sonographers work closely with physicians or surgeons before, during, and after procedures.
  • Cardiology technologists monitor patients’ heart rates and help physicians in diagnosing and treating problems with patients’ hearts. They assist with cardiac catheterization, which involves threading a catheter through a patient’s artery to the heart. Some cardiology technologists prepare and monitor patients during open-heart surgery and during the insertion of pacemakers and stents. Technologists prepare patients for these procedures by shaving and cleansing the area where the catheter will be inserted and administering topical anesthesia. During the procedure, they monitor the patient’s blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Cardiovascular technicians work closely with cardiovascular technologists. Technicians who specialize in electrocardiogram (EKG) testing are known as cardiographic or electrocardiogram (EKG) technicians. EKG machines monitor the heart's performance through electrodes attached to a patient’s chest, arms, and legs. The tests can be done while the patient is at rest or while the patient is physically active. For a stress test, the patient walks on a treadmill and the technician gradually increases the speed to observe the effect of increased exertion.

Vascular technologists (vascular sonographers) are closely related to cardiovascular technologists and their duties are similar to those of diagnostic medical sonographers. Vascular technologists create images of blood vessels and collect data that help physicians diagnose disorders affecting blood flow. Vascular technologists often measure a patient’s blood pressure and the volume of blood in their arms, legs, fingers, and toes to evaluate blood flow and identify blocked arteries. They complete noninvasive procedures using specialized ultrasound instruments or blood pressure cuffs to record information, such as the blood flow in arteries and veins, blood pressure (blood volume), oxygen saturation, and the presence of blood clots in the body. Vascular technologists may work closely with physicians or surgeons before, during, and after procedures.

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Work Environment

Diagnostic medical sonographers held about 58,800 jobs in 2012. Cardiovascular technologists and technicians, including vascular technologists, held about 51,600 jobs in 2012. Most diagnostic imaging workers were employed in hospitals in 2012, while others worked in healthcare settings such as physician’s offices and medical and diagnostic laboratories.

Diagnostic imaging workers complete most of their work at diagnostic imaging machines in dimly lit rooms, but they also may perform procedures at patients' bedsides. They may be on their feet for long periods and may need to lift or turn patients who are disabled.

Work Schedules

Most diagnostic imaging workers work full time. Because they work in facilities that are always open, some may work evenings, weekends, or overnight.

Education and Training

Diagnostic medical sonographers and cardiovascular technologists and technicians, including vascular technologists, need formal education, such as an associate’s degree or a postsecondary certificate. Many employers also require professional certification.

Education

Colleges and universities offer both associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs in sonography and in cardiovascular and vascular technology. One-year certificate programs also are available from colleges or in hospitals, although these are usually useful only to those who are already employed in related healthcare jobs, such as a radiation therapist. Employers typically prefer candidates with degrees or certificates from accredited institutes or hospital programs. Most programs also include a clinical component in which students earn credit while working under a more experienced technologist in a hospital, physician’s office, or imaging laboratory.
Sonography, cardiovascular, and vascular education programs usually include courses in anatomy, medical terminology, and applied sciences. Most sonography programs are divided into the specialized fields that correspond to the relevant certification exams, such as abdominal sonography or breast sonography. Cardiovascular and vascular programs include coursework in either invasive or noninvasive cardiovascular or vascular technology procedures.

High school students who are interested in diagnostic medical sonography, cardiovascular technology, or vascular technology should take courses in anatomy, physiology, and mathematics.

Training

Someone who works in a related occupation, such as a radiation therapist, could become a diagnostic medical sonographer or cardiovascular technologist or technician or vascular technologist after receiving on-the-job training from his or her employer.

Cardiovascular technicians who work as electrocardiogram (EKG) technicians are typically trained on the job by their employer. These programs usually take 4 to 6 weeks to complete.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Most employers prefer to hire diagnostic imaging workers with professional certification. Many insurance providers and Medicare pay for procedures only if a certified sonographer, technologist, or technician performed the work.

Diagnostic imaging workers can earn certification by graduating from an accredited program and passing an exam. Most exams relate to the specialty that the diagnostic imaging worker is most interested in—for example, a sonographer can take a specific exam to become certified in abdominal sonography. Most diagnostic imaging workers have at least one certification, but may earn various certifications. A few states require diagnostic medical sonographers to be licensed. Typically, professional certification is required for licensure; other requirements vary by state.

Personality and Interests

Diagnostic medical sonographers typically have an interest in the Building, Thinking and Helping interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Thinking interest area indicates a focus on researching, investigating, and increasing the understanding of natural laws. The Helping interest area indicates a focus on assisting, serving, counseling, or teaching other people.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Thinking or Helping interest which might fit with a career as a diagnostic medical sonographer, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Diagnostic medical sonographers should also possess the following specific qualities:

Detail oriented. Diagnostic imaging workers must follow precise instructions to obtain the images needed to diagnose and treat patients. They must also pay attention to the screen while scanning a patient's body because the cues that contrast healthy areas with unhealthy ones may be subtle.

Hand-eye coordination. To get quality images, diagnostic imaging workers must be able to accurately move equipment on the patient’s body in response to what they see on the screen.

Interpersonal skills. Diagnostic imaging workers must work closely with patients. Sometimes patients are in extreme pain or mental stress, and they must get cooperation from the patient to create usable images.

Physical stamina. Diagnostic imaging workers are on their feet for long periods and must be able to lift and move patients who need assistance.

Technical skills. Diagnostic imaging workers must understand how to operate complex machinery and computerized instruments.

Pay

The median annual wage for diagnostic medical sonographers was $65,860 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $44,990, and the top 10 percent earned more than $91,070.

The median annual wage for cardiovascular technologists and technicians, including vascular technologists, was $52,070 in May 2012. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $27,830, and the top 10 percent earned more than $80,790.

Most diagnostic imaging workers work full time. Because they work in facilities that are always open, some may work evenings, weekends, or overnight.

Job Outlook

Employment of diagnostic medical sonographers is projected to grow 46 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Employment of cardiovascular technologists and technicians, including vascular technologists, is projected to grow 30 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations.

As imaging technology evolves, medical facilities will use it to replace more invasive, costly procedures. Technological advances and less expensive equipment now allow more procedures to be done outside of hospitals. Third-party payers encourage the use of these noninvasive measures over invasive ones.

Although hospitals remain the primary employer of diagnostic medical sonographers, cardiovascular technologists and technicians, and vascular technologists, employment is projected to grow more rapidly in physicians' offices and in medical and diagnostic laboratories. Employment in these healthcare settings is projected to increase because of a shift toward outpatient care whenever possible.

As the large baby-boom population ages and people remain active later in life, the need to diagnose medical conditions—such as blood clots and tumors—will likely increase, and imaging technology is a tool used in making these diagnoses. Additionally, federal health legislation will expand the number of patients who have access to health insurance, increasing patient access to medical care. Diagnostic imaging workers will continue to be needed to use and maintain the equipment needed for diagnosis and treatment.

Job Prospects

Diagnostic imaging personnel who are certified are expected to have the best job opportunities. Job opportunities increase when diagnostic imaging personnel are certified in more than one specialty.

For More Information

For more information about diagnostic medical sonographers, visit

Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography

For more information about cardiovascular technologists and technicians, including vascular technologists, visit

Alliance of Cardiovascular Professionals

American Society of Echocardiography

Society for Vascular Ultrasound

For more information about registration and certification, visit

American Registry of Radiologic Technologists

Cardiovascular Credentialing International

American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography

For a current list of accredited education programs in diagnostic medical sonography and cardiovascular technology, including vascular technology, visit

Joint Review Committee on Education in Diagnostic Medical Sonography

Joint Review Committee on Education in Cardiovascular Technology

Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs

Society for Vascular Ultrasound

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