Career: Diagnostic Medical Sonography

Career requires only an associate’s degree. It pays about $72K in Syracuse

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Would you like a career in a medical field that requires an associate’s degree but starts at around a $72,000 salary in the Syracuse area?

Consider becoming a diagnostic medical sonographer — or a technician who takes ultrasound images for physicians.

In addition to a healthy return on investment, the career offers a job outlook of 17 percent growth from 2016 to 2026, considered “much faster” than other jobs by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Kenneth Galbraith, program director of Diagnostic Medical Sonography at SUNY Upstate Medical University, graduated from the College of Health Professional Medical Imaging Sciences. As he rotated through imaging, he had the opportunity to rotate through sonography.

“I thought it was an interesting offshoot of radiography,” Galbraith said. “It was a little more artsy than the others in that it’s a free form modality that made it more appealing to me.”

He completed coursework in sonography, practiced 17 years, and now he teaches all the professional courses, handles clinical coordination and runs the ultrasound lab.

Many people stereotypically picture the sonographer as the person who takes ultrasounds of their baby before birth; however, the career has many other options, too.

Sonographers work in hospitals, doctor’s offices, and non-medical boutiques that offer sonography sessions for families to “meet” their new baby before birth (although this sub-specialty isn’t diagnostic in nature). Typical OB-GYN offices don’t have much room for the entire family to join the first glimpse of the baby. That’s the reason behind the non-diagnostic ultrasound offered at offices.

The medical specialties include vascular, ophthalmology, cardiac, pediatric and many more.

In addition to practicing, related opportunities could include managing, education and working for companies that build and sell the equipment.

Galbraith believes that people skills are necessary for sonographers.

“Sometimes, you see people who are not on their best behavior,” he said. “They’re hurt or scared. They’ve had to drive to a place they’re not familiar with. You need to be intellectually curious and want to always get better.”

He likens ultrasound to learning to play a musical instrument. With practice, sonographers improve their skill. A strong aptitude in science helps with the technical aspects, as anatomy, physiology, and physics are integral.

Sonographers take continuing education credits to keep their credentialing and stay up-to-date. In New York, only an associate’s degree is required before sitting for the required certification exam. The national credential is also widely recognized worldwide.

“Employability is very good,” Galbraith said.

All of his graduates have found employment within two months.

“I love the idea that you can feel you can make a difference for someone,” Galbraith said. “Some people go into a hospital or exam and they’re scared. We don’t stick needles in. Most people in OB-GYN are excited to come in. We spend time with them, talk with them and make their day better. We have this great opportunity because we’re so hands-on. You give them a good feeling.”

Valerie Heisler, sonographer with Syracuse VA Medical Center, specializes in general and vascular sonography. She had worked as an X-ray technician, but when a supervisory position opened, she needed cross training in sonography to quality for it. When she began on-the-job training, she discovered she enjoyed sonography.

“I have a knack for it,” she said. “It’s like patting your head and rubbing your stomach. It takes eye-hand coordination.”

With her imaging background, on-the-job training sufficed. Though the state of New York doesn’t require certification for sonographers, it is usually expected by employers, especially for people without experience in imaging.

“It’s a very interesting career if you like hands-on, which is one of the reasons I like it,” Heisler said. “You’re in close contact with patients, you converse with them and hear their stories.”

While she likes these aspects of her work, she said that it has its challenges as well. The ultrasound probes must be applied to the pertinent area of the body with sufficient force to render a useable image. This can cause repetitive motion injuries in the shoulders.

“We have to put a lot of strength and compression into it,” Heisler said. “The population is getting obese, and ultrasound can only go to a certain depth. You get under-quality images and can get injuries. You have to press harder. One patient apologized and said he lost 10 pounds since I last saw him. He feels the pressure.”

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