What it takes to be a Sonographer

A career as a sonographer can be likened to that of a detective. When gathering images with an ultrasound device, you need to know how to spot abnormalities and identify possible causes of a patient’s symptoms.

“You have to know what normal looks like,” said Naomi Baker, a registered diagnostic medical sonographer at St. Cloud Hospital. “So when you see abnormal, you may not know what it is that you’re looking at, but you know that that’s not normal.”

As part of the Times’ career development project called Spark: Igniting Your Future, Baker and Maryann Burrows, registered diagnostic medical sonographer and ultrasound supervisor at St. Cloud Hospital, chatted with two students from Tech High School about their sonography careers in March.

The St. Cloud Times reports that seniors Missy Prom and Rachel Merchlewicz said they were interested in looking into more health care career options beyond nursing. Sonography careers were appealing to them because of the two-year degree requirements.

“I shadowed a nurse but the nursing aspect wasn’t for me,” Prom said. ”(This program) is two years, so I wanted to see more.”

Sonographers can find jobs in hospitals, clinics and imaging centers. Most registered diagnostic medical sonographers enter the career field after completing a two-year associate degree program, like the one offered at St. Cloud Technical & Community College.

Internships and on-the-job experience gained after schooling is where a lot of the learning happens, said Burrows.

“The experience with this profession comes at the internship. That’s where you really learn all of the different techniques,” Burrows said. “The sonographers that work with you, they’re able to help you and kind of give you their different ideas of how you can get that better image and the things that they’ve learned just in scanning.”

Baker attended SCTCC and said having a solid grasp on human anatomy, pathology and physics is necessary for someone looking to become a sonographer.

“A lot of the things I think people don’t understand with ultrasound is that it’s different than any other kind of imaging. Ultrasound is very user-dependent,” Baker said. It’s up to the sonographer to search and scan a patient for any potential abnormalities, as well as work with a patient to get the best diagnostic images possible.

“You have to be able to read your patient,” Baker said. “That’s going to help the sonographer get the best pictures to the radiologist.”

While sonographers do not diagnose conditions, it’s the work they do and the images they gather that give doctors the best clues into what could be affecting a patient.

“Our job is to describe it, not diagnose it. You are the eyes for the radiologist,” Baker said. “A lot of people say ‘you just take pictures’ but it’s really a lot more than that. If I don’t show that in my picture, then they don’t know that that’s there.”

The diagnostic medical sonography field is slated to grow 18.9 percent in the next 10 years, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The area’s median wage for diagnostic medical sonographers is $78,115 a year, and the occupation is projected to offer 480 openings over the next decade.

“It is kind of like a puzzle because you have to know to try those different things,” Baker said. “It’s not as simple as just putting a probe down and taking pictures. You’ve got to know what you can do to help see those kinds of things and to help get a diagnosis.”