How to Become a Medical Sonographer in California

Career Overview

A diagnostic medical sonographer (aka sonographer or ultrasound technician) is in the unique position of having the opportunity to combine a health career with the use of some of the most advanced technology available in the field.

A diagnostic medical sonographer uses sonographic equipment that produces sound waves to create images of different structures within the patient’s body. The process involves placing a “wand-like” piece of equipment, called a “transducer,” over the patient’s body near the area where the image is to be created. The transducer sends high frequency sound waves into body structures and “detects” the echoes as they bounce off internal organ systems to produce a sound in the form of a cone-shaped beam of light. Different body structures will emit different types of sound due to their composition, density, etc. These sounds are then analyzed by a computer to produce an image of the structure on a television-like monitor that can then be transferred to a video.

Key Responsibilities include:

  • Records patient medical history and presenting complaint.
  • Performs diagnostic evaluations and creating sonographic images of specific body structures.
  • Prepares a verbal and written record of the technical findings to the physician for further evaluation.
  • Adjusts and calibrates the sonographic equipment to appropriate settings and assists the patient move into different positions to obtain the best image for diagnostic purposes.
  • Spreads a gel-like substance over part of the body that will be examined. The gel helps carry the signal from the transducer.
  • Evaluates the image to discover the underlying medical issue. As per Professor Charlotte Henningsen, President of the Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonogaprhers (SDMS), “because of the real-time nature of sonography exams, it is one of the more operator-dependent medical imaging modalities.”  This means that an accurate exam is dependent on the skills and knowledge of the sonographer.

Sonographers may specialize in several areas that include:

  • Abdomen – evaluation of soft tissues, blood vessels and such organs as  liver, pancreas and spleen
  • Breast – diagnostic mammography is a well-known procedure to detect breast-related conditions (e.g. cysts and tumors)
  • Obstetrics and gynecology – evaluation of the reproductive organs
  • Echocardiography- evaluation of the heart, heart valves and nearby blood vessels
  • Vascular Sonography – evaluation of blood flow of the peripheral nervous system (PNS))
  • Neurosonography –evaluation of the brain and spinal cord

Employment settings for sonographers include hospitals, outpatient clinics, diagnostic imaging centers, private and group doctor offices, as well as community-based clinics.

There are several pathways of career advancement, including teaching in schools of diagnostic sonography, health care administration, research, technical consulting, and salesperson with diagnostic equipment manufactures.

For those in the Los Angeles area, Cedars-Sinai Hospital is one of the most renowned medical institutions and biomedical research centers in the country and offers excellent career opportunities in all areas of allied health.

Career Outlook

With the continuing rapid advances in technology and increased use of diagnostic imaging in both hospital and outpatient settings, the growth of this field is expected to be strong with excellent opportunities for employment. As per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the anticipated rate of growth for diagnostic medical sonographers is about 18 percent per year through 2018, much faster than the rate for most other occupations. This increased demand also arises from the continuing aging of the population with their higher incidence of accident and illness and consequent need for diagnostic imaging services.

Education and Training

According to Professor Charlotte Henningsen of the SDMS, the majority of states (California included) have no mandated minimum education requirements or certification requirements to work as diagnostic medical sonographers. As a result, it is possible to begin a career in this field with a high school diploma or general equivalency diploma (GED). However, Professor Henningsen does state that graduation from an accredited training program in addition to registration through the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS), Cardiovascular Credentialing International (CCI), or American Registry for Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) is highly recommended to enhance employment opportunities in what has become a competitive profession. As per Professor Henningsen, all of the sonography-related professional associations embrace the idea of sonographers certification as the community standard-of-care. Accredited programs also provide solid preparation for the certification examinations in the field.

As per Ms. Henningsen, “The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) accredits over 190 educational programs offered by vocational schools, community colleges, and universities. Several hospital-based programs have received accreditation as well.”

Most accredited programs are offered in two year colleges. Coursework in most programs will include anatomy and physiology, medical instrumentation, basic physics, patient care, and medical ethics combined with extensive clinical education and practicum experience.

There are also shorter-length programs that offer a certificate upon completion but these programs are tailored toward those who are already employed within the health care sector and seek to transition into the field of sonography.

Certification Requirements

While certification is not required, Professor Henningsen strongly encourages interested candidates to enroll in accredited sonography program and pursue certification. The majority of employers prefer to hire those candidates who have received certification as this provides evidence of the candidate’s knowledge, skills and commitment to the field. The profession is also seeking to establish stricter standards for entry-level sonographers as the field continues to evolve and grow in light of the advances in diagnostic technology.

Diagnostic Medical Sonographers can become registered by passing two examinations administered by the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS). The first exam is the Sonography Principles and Instrumentation (SPI) examination; the second exam is chosen from such speciality areas as vascular, cardiac, breast, abdominal, and neurosonography.  To qualify to sit for the exam, you must have completed the ultrasound physics and instrumentation courses in a sonographer training program.

Upon passing both exams you will certified as a Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer (RDMS) by ARDMS. According to Professor Henningsen, there are currently 70,000 Diagnostic Medical Sonographers registered through this agency.

Salaries of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers

The following are median entry-level salaries of ultrasound technologists in select regional areas of California.

Fresno $76,239
Los Angeles $85,651
Sacramento $82,242
San Diego $81,806
San Francisco $95,337