Ultrasound Technician Course | How to Get Started With a Career in Ultrasound
Welcome to the Ultrasound career field: We all have need of your skills and service.
What are the skills that I need?
Diagnostic ultrasound is an especially technical undertaking: the sonographer must use expert mental and hand-eye skills, coupled with a thorough knowledge of anatomy and disease. The process is more open-ended than traditional imaging using x-rays and computer-generated images. Sonography requires the operator to think in three dimensions, often without reference points.
The science of this line of thought is known as abstract spatial reasoning; it is like any skill: some are naturally given to it; others learn it through instruction. Everyone masters it through repeated practice.
The second critical part of sonography involves the science of conspicuity: the ability to see subtle differences in patterns clearly. It is commonly believed that this ability can only be gained through hundreds of hours of practice. Like the first skill, it can be taught, and mastery evolves over a lifetime of practice.
How can I enter the field?
If you’re entering healthcare for the first time you should consider your long-term goals and opportunities. Ultrasound may be your ultimate career goal or it may be a stepping-stone in your bigger picture.
In North America, you can enter a formal, accredited course of instruction where you will take part in classroom and bedside learning over the course of 18 months to up to 2 years. Four-year, degree programs are available. Upon completion of your training, you will need to undertake a certification exam offered one of several available national credentialing organizations. The U.S. and Canadian governments have pressed initiatives to ensure that sonographers in vascular and cardiac medicine achieve credentialing. The same will eventually apply to sonographers in other clinical areas as well.
Do I have to become certified to work in ultrasound?
In a technical sense, it depends: the states of New Mexico and Oregon now require that all sonographers be certified in his or her area of specialty. In the entire U.S., Medicare links vascular ultrasound reimbursement to sonographer certification in varying degrees of compliance. Cardiac ultrasound is undergoing the same changes, with directives in nearly half of all states. Abdominal and obstetric ultrasound is less formally governed, but will ultimately come under the same control.
Practically speaking, you should plan to get credentialed, in every area you plan to work. The credentialing exam process ultimately draws you through the learning practice that demonstrates your commitment to and competence for the patient and the profession. Gaining certification is an essential part of your career picture: your employer will expect it, and the best opportunities go to those who prepare for them.
The certification exam (any of them) will test you on all the skills you need to have: Only a little more than two-thirds of those who take the exam pass it the first time.
If I went into another health care field, could I go into sonography later?
Yes. In fact, the majority of persons presently working as sonographers in North America started their health care careers in another field, including radiology technologists, nurses, and even physicians. In the rest of the world, sonography is usually performed directly by physicians, as an extension of his or her clinical skills. The certification exam process is open to nearly all health care professionals who have achieved a minimum level of formal education and clinical ultrasound experience.
I already have the formal education, or I’ll get it. How do I get the clinical experience?
Over the last twenty years, colleges and private schools for ultrasound training have multiplied in every state. This has been in response to the sharp increase in employment in sonography. These programs compete with each other to partner with hospitals and private clinical sites, to offer bedside hands-on training for students. Over this same period, these sites have reduced staff and increased sonographer patient loads, making outsider training more restricted. As a result, you will find yourself with stiff competition for essential hands-on experience unless you already have a working relationship with your clinical institution. The alternative is to enroll in a formal school that guarantees you the required 800 hours of hands-on experience. This may be impractical.
You, your clinical employer, or both may prefer to follow a track where you fast track your requisite technical training and then work in a peer-monitored, proctored setting blended into your existing work schedule. The time-to-completion on this sort of track is about the same or less than formal, dedicated school. It all depends on you, your circumstances and resources, and your long-term goals.
What should I do next?
If you are looking to enter healthcare through sonography, find an accredited school that will guarantee you the clinical rotations that will fulfill your certification requirements. Do a state-specific search for schools in your region and compare them all.
If you are drawn to another field in patient care, know that there is an alternative path to sonography. This one will require just as much focus as the rigors of a formal school and about as much time, but it will require you to partner with your employer over the longer term to arrange the bedside experience you’ll need.
Which path is better?
Neither path is better unless your own perspective makes it so. Either one will take you to the doorway to professional certification. Both have the potential to give you the knowledge, skills, and judgment you will need at the bedside.
Where can I find out more?
Everyone in sonography has a story, and you’ll want to talk to professionals already in the field. There are general-interest and topic-specific professional organizations for sonographers; these offer their own perspectives on the field. The ultimate resource to plan your future by is the prerequisite guidelines established by the three professional certification organizations. You can easily compare the two largest: click Prerequisites to Certification.
The prerequisites are subject to constant revision; visit their sites for up-to-the-minute information: