On the Job
The most familiar use of diagnostic medical sonography, or ultrasound imaging, is during pregnancy. The technique is a non-invasive way to evaluate the health of a developing baby. High-frequency sound waves move through the mother’s body and send back echoes, translating into images that show what is going on in her body as well as the body of the fetus.
This form of imaging is not limited to obstetric care, however. Ultrasound helps diagnosis abnormal growths in organs, including the heart, problems in the brain. It is a major part of breast health screening. If a routine mammogram, or specialized breast x-ray, finds a potential problem, a breast ultrasound is usually the next step.
Ultrasound technicians must have detailed knowledge of human anatomy and what healthy and diseased organs and tissues look like so they can target the right areas inside the body. Regardless of what will be examined, these health professionals start by explaining the procedure to the patient and reviewing and recording relevant medical history. They also must know what position the patient needs to be in to get the best images. This can mean lifting or turning patients who cannot move on their own.
A transducer transmits the sound waves through the body in a beam that is shaped like a cone or a rectangle. Before starting, sonographers usually apply a gel to the area they are going to examine; the gel helps transmit the sound waves better. They look for cues that distinguish healthy areas from unhealthy ones.
An important part of the job is picking which images to take, store and show the doctors who will use them to make a diagnosis. Sonographers do make preliminary findings but usually do not discuss them in detail with the patients – that is the job of physicians who have specialized training in evaluating the data produced by sound waves.
With the exception of pregnancy screening, ultrasound imaging is not routine, so many patients are nervous and worried that something may be wrong. Pregnant women and expectant fathers are pretty nervous to, so diagnostic medical sonographers need to perform their jobs calmly. The job often involves very intimate contact with patients, and a calm, professional approach makes the procedure easier for everyone.
Ultrasound technicians spend most of the workday on their feet. Their duties also include keeping patient records, adjusting and maintaining equipment and working directly with physicians who specialize in the body system or area being diagnosed. Depending on the job and the level of responsibility, ultrasound technicians also may prepare work schedules, evaluate equipment purchases or manage a sonography or diagnostic imaging department.
Most ultrasound imaging takes place in special, darkened rooms, but the equipment is portable and allows diagnosis at the bedsides of patients who should not be moved.
Hospitals usually have sonographers available 24 hours a day, which can mean night or weekend shifts or being on call. Most full-time sonographers work about 40 hours a week.