Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer Careers: Job Description & Salary

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A diagnostic cardiac sonographer's annual salary is around $67,000. Is it worth the education requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career outlook to find out if becoming a diagnostic cardiac sonographer is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer

Cardiac sonographers use specialized equipment to obtain images of the heart. To make an informed career decision, you'll need to take a look at the pros and cons of becoming a diagnostic cardiac sonographer.

Pros of Becoming a Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer
Rapid-growth field (30% from 2012-2022)*
Only a 2-year degree required**
Good pay ($67,000 median annual salary)***
Many places to work****

Cons of Becoming a Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer
Risk of injury*
Can be stressful****
Few accredited training programs (42 in U.S. as of August 2015)*****
Most employers require professional certification*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonography, ***Salary.com, ****Alliance of Cardiovascular Professionals, ***** Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs.

Essential Career Information

Job Description

Also called echocardiographers or echocardiograph technicians, diagnostic cardiac sonographers obtain images of heart arteries, chambers and vessels through equipment that projects high-frequency sound waves. These images are called echocardiograms. You may have to administer medication as part of the imaging process. Cardiac sonographers may also assist physicians with other cardiac procedures.

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that most diagnostic cardiac sonographers work in hospitals, you could also work at a clinic, physician's office or diagnostic imaging center. The job can be stressful because you are often dealing with very sick patients. Anyone who works with cardiovascular procedures is trained in advanced life support methods. You could develop carpal tunnel syndrome as well as muscle and eye strain, but advances in ergonomic technology are reducing the risk.

Salary and Employment Prospects

According to Salary.com, the median annual salary for echocardiographers was about $67,000 in March 2015, with the middle half of salaries for this career ranging between $60,000 and $75,000. The highest-paid members of the profession made $81,000 or more, according to Salary.com.

An aging population, coupled with the general prevalence of heart disease, means that job prospects should be good for diagnostic cardiac sonographers, according to the BLS. The BLS predicted that employment of all cardiovascular technologists and technicians, which include cardiac sonographers would increase by 30% from 2012-2022, much faster than average for all occupations.

What Are the Requirements?

While bachelor's degree programs are becoming more common, most echocardiographers hold associate's degrees or certificates in diagnostic cardiac sonography from colleges or technical schools. Certificate programs take 21-24 months to complete and are open to students who already have associate's degrees in other health fields that involve direct patient care. Coursework in these programs includes anatomy, ultrasound physics and instrumentation. You'll get a lot of hands-on experience and clinical practice in real situations. Choose a program approved by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

Other Useful Skills

As a diagnostic cardiac sonographer, you'll be working with people and equipment so the ability to get along with others, as well as mechanical aptitude, is important. Good communications skills are vital for talking with physicians and patients.

What Employers Want

Certification and experience were usually mentioned in job postings for diagnostic cardiac sonographers. Most employers wanted someone certified in echocardiography by the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS). Most ads call for at least a year of experience. Here are some examples of what real employers were looking for in March 2012:

  • A Missouri hospital was looking for a chief cardiac sonographer. The ad asked for a bachelor's degree and at least 11 years' experience in the field. This person would provide direct care to patients and lead a team of sonographers.
  • In Denver, a hospital sought a cardiac sonographer to perform ultrasounds and cardiac and vascular exams, prepare written documentation and maintain records. The hospital preferred sonographers certified by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT), as well as by ARDMS.
  • An Illinois hospital needed someone to perform pediatric and adult sonographic procedures. While the job was a full-time position, this person would also have to work on an on-call basis. The sonographer must hold ARDMS credentials or obtain them within six months of hiring.
  • In Arizona, a hospital needed someone with five years' experience as a pediatric cardiac sonographer. In addition to performing sonographic procedures, this person would be responsible for daily operating activities related to quality control and budgeting.

How to Stand Out in the Field

Earn Professional Credentials

While it's not absolutely required, you'll want to get certification from the ARDMS since most job advertisements request certified echocardiographers. Candidates who meet standards for education and experience qualify for the certification exams. The Sonography Principles & Instrumentation examination is open to all types of sonographers and is a prerequisite to other credentialing exams. You can test to become a Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer (RDCS) in adult, pediatric or fetal echocardiography. Each exam has 150 questions and takes three hours to complete. You might want to consider certification in all three cardiac specialties; the BLS says it could make you more marketable.

Multiply Your Skills

Cardiovascular technicians and technologists who are trained and certified in several specialties have the best job opportunities, according to the BLS. For instance, cardiac sonographers can cross train in other types of non-invasive technologies, such as vascular sonography or diagnostic medical sonography, which includes mammography and obstetric ultrasounds.

Other Career Options

Nuclear Medicine Technologist

If you'd like a larger paycheck than cardiac sonography provides, but still want to work with patients and machines, look into a career as a nuclear medicine technologist. You'll give radioactive drugs to patients and monitor the drug's progress through the body with a gamma scintillation camera, producing images for a physician to interpret. Most nuclear medicine technologists hold associate's degrees. If you already hold a health care degree, you can complete a 1-year certificate program. The BLS reports that some states require these professionals to be licensed. The median annual salary for nuclear medicine technologists was $69,000 in May 2010, while the highest paid ten percent of workers made $92,000 or more, the BLS reported. The BLS predicted job growth of 16% from 2008-2018, faster than average for all occupations.

Radiation Therapist

A rapidly growing field, with lots more money but perhaps more stress, is radiation therapy, in which you administer radiation treatments to cancer patients. An associate's or bachelor's degree is required, but individuals with degrees in radiography can earn certificates. The median annual salary of a radiation therapist was around $75,000 in May 2010, according to the BLS, which predicted job growth of 27% in this occupation, much faster than average for all occupations. The BLS notes that some lifting and stretching is involved, and many therapists find it stressful to work with people who often are very ill. However, the BLS adds, most find it a rewarding career.

Clinical Laboratory Technician

Constant contact with patients not your thing? You can help physicians diagnose medical conditions as a clinical laboratory technician. You'll need an associate's degree or a certificate from a technical school, hospital training program or the armed forces. Clinical laboratory technicians work in hospitals and diagnostic laboratories, preparing blood and tissue specimens and operating machines that analyze them. The BLS expected employment in this occupation to grow by 14% from 2008-2018, faster than average for all occupations. The median salary was $36,000 in May 2010, the BLS reported.

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