If you watch TV or go to the movies, you’ve probably watched a scene depicting happy parents looking at an ultrasound of their baby. The person you see creating that image is a diagnostic medical sonographer. This type of ultrasound is only a small part of what sonographers do -- these professionals perform many different types of internal examinations for patients of all ages. Often trained through an associate’s degree program, these health care workers are highly paid, and demand for them is expected to soar during the years to come.
Diagnostic medical sonographers create images of patients’ internal body parts that doctors use to make diagnoses and treatment recommendations. Using instruments that use sound waves, sonographers create images of tissue and organs, often in conjunction with an x-ray, MRI or CAT scan, adding another tool for doctors to provide better patient care. Sonographers apply a gel to the skin of a patient, such as on the stomach area, then place a device on the area to send sound waves that bounce back an echo, creating a picture.
Sonographers work closely and personally with each patient, explaining how the procedure will work, discussing the person’s medical history, preparing him for the exam and conducting the procedure. Once the sonographer has taken the images, she examines the results, chooses the best ones to show the physician and gives her input on what the exam results show.
To succeed in this field you’ll need to be confident, decisive and comfortable working with people, says Debra Krukowski, coordinator of the diagnostic medical sonography program at Triton College in River Grove. “We deal with patients a very short period of time, but we are very intimate with them, so we have to quickly make them feel very comfortable with us. That's going to come from your presence and how comfortable you can make people feel.”
Sonographers work independently when performing their work, but are part of a health care team, working closely with doctors. Most sonographers work in hospitals, with some working at private physician’s offices, outpatient facilities and labs.
Education and training
The most common path toward working as a sonographer is an associate’s degree from an accredited program, with most employers wanting certification after completion of your training. The coursework includes general math and science classes, sonography courses and hands-on practical training in a health care facility. In addition to Triton, Harper College in Palatine and the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn offer associate’s degree programs in sonography. If you’ve already got training and certification in another health care field, you might be able to take a one-year certificate program.
Sonographers often specialize in one or more areas of the profession, with specialties including abdominal, musculoskeletal, breast, neurosonography, obstetric/gynecology and echocardiography. “The more specialties you add, the more marketable you become,” says Krukowski. In addition to their imaging work, sonographers can move into positions that include management, medical sales, equipment training, teaching and research. “The opportunities are almost endless,” says Krukowski.
Diagnostic medical sonographers earned an annual median salary of approximately $64,300 in 2010, with top earners making close to $90,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average salary of Chicago diagnostic sonographer jobs advertised on the job search website Indeed.com was $93,000 in November of 2013. Graduates from Triton’s program are prepared for work in general sonography and find work either before they graduate or within months of earning their certification, says Krukowski, who estimates starting salary at approximately $50,000 per year.
Demand for these health care professionals is expected to increase heavily during the coming years. When the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, goes into effect in January of 2014, demand for sonography is expected to rise significantly, says Krukowski. "All of these people who haven't had insurance in a long time and who have had aches and pains will now be able to go for ultrasounds or x-rays or other diagnostic tests.”