Demand Surges for Medical Sonographers

By Debra Wood, RN




Position ranks as one of fastest growing U.S. jobs

A confluence of more patients seeking health services and the noninvasive nature of ultrasound imaging has led to rising demand for the healthcare profession of diagnostic medical sonographers, which is likely to grow stronger in the years ahead. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows sonographers as one of the fastest growing jobs in the country.

 “There are a lot of individuals with access to insurance, so they are starting to get diagnostic testing,” said Linda Murphy, Allied Division Vice President at AMN Healthcare in Florida. “At the same time, we’re hearing hospitals are getting increased revenue generation through improved outcomes, which many are investing in equipment and in hiring traveling radiology technicians and sonographers.”  The additional staff are needed to accommodate an increase in patients referred for mammograms and ultrasound studies, which employs high-frequency sound waves to view soft tissues.

 “Ultrasound provides people the opportunity to get diagnostics for their disease states without an invasive procedure or radiologic side effects,” Murphy said. 

At the same time, advances in ultrasound technology have improved the images, making the technology useful in the diagnosis of more conditions. A recent study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found that ultrasound was as effective as computed tomography in diagnosing kidney stones with lower radiation exposure.

Enhancements to ultrasound include greater contrast-enhanced imaging, which allows physicians to identify tissue and fluids; volume imaging; three- and four-dimensional imaging; and elastography, providing color codes to help in the differentiation between normal and malignant tumors.

“As it continues to advance, [ultrasound images] will get sharper and sharper,” Murphy said. “The ultimate goal is for machines like ultrasound to replace X-ray and the exposure to radiation.”

Ultrasound equipment has become more portable, compact and cost-effective, allowing testing to be performed in clinics and physician offices. Murphy reported obstetricians now usually perform an ultrasound at every visit late in pregnancy, whereas in the past, one ultrasound would typically have been performed at 16 weeks.

“The technology has advanced; now they can see the chambers of the baby’s heart,” Murphy said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports diagnostic medical sonographer is one of the fasted growing occupations, with a projected 46 percent growth rate from 2012 to 2022. In addition, it’s one of the best paying in the top 10 fastest growing professions, at a median annual wage of $65,860, second only to industrial-organizational psychologists, who typically must complete more education.

The Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography (SDMS) 2013 Salary and Benefit Survey Report indicated a higher median salary of $78,520 annually for sonographers.

Sonographers need an associate or bachelor’s degree. One-year certification programs are often available to people already employed in related healthcare positions. The SDMS recommends students select a program that meets the minimum requirements set by the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography. Some states require licensure.

Most employers prefer sonographers with professional certification, since payers often only reimburse for a procedure conducted by a certified sonographer or technician.

Certification exams typically focus on one area, such as abdominal, breast, obstetrics or vascular sonography, and those in the field often hold more than one certification. Diagnostic medical sonographers with multiple certifications are in especially strong demand and often receive multiple job offers and highly competitive compensation packages.  

Murphy reported an increasing challenge in finding enough sonographers to fill requests from hospitals and imaging centers. That has allowed traveling sonographers to earn, as part of a total compensation package, close to $100,000, while seeing the country.

 “The future looks fabulous for ultrasound because it is a safer, more cost-effective, portable alternative,” Murphy said. 

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