The Fastest Way to Becoming a Certified Sonographer
There are many paths to becoming a certified sonographer. In general, vascular, or echocardiography ultrasound practices, the ARDMS has been the longest-standing credentialing body granting professional certifications in all specialties of diagnostic ultrasound. The fastest tracks to becoming a certified sonographer by the ARDMS are detailed in this blog.
The ARDMS (American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonographers)
The ARDMS has a total of nine prerequisites that help guide individuals on a path to becoming certified. All paths require some level of education that include academic course work in diagnostic ultrasound and a patient care externship rotation. These two elements are necessary to become eligible to apply to take the ARDMS examinations. I used the phrase ‘eligible to apply to take’ because the ARDMS reserves the right to review any submitted documents to allow students and graduates to sit for their examinations.
Regardless of educational credentials (diploma, certificate, Associate degree, bachelor’s degree), or on-the-job training, the average entry-level sonographer wage remains consistent. In other words, it does not matter if you have a certificate, Associate degree, or bachelor’s degree in sonography. The entry-level salary is the same. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the average salary for general sonography is $84,890 annually in outpatient-care centers. The last updated averages were published in May 2017. Salary ranges vary among geographic location, type of specialty, and type of facility offering ultrasound examinations.
In some cases, a graduated sonographer must acquire an additional 12 months of full-time paid work experience or equivalent (35 hours per week, at least 48 weeks per year), before they are eligible to apply to take the ARDMS certifying examinations. This was a popular route for students who had no prior background with patient care related fields. However, facility policies are becoming increasingly stricter with employment eligibility in diagnostic ultrasound labs due to updated Medicare and Medicaid laws that refer to reimbursement for diagnostic testing. Many facilities are not employing new graduates who are not. New graduates are forced to withdraw from the profession entirely or relocate to a facility willing to give them a chance to gain the 12 months full-time experience in diagnostic ultrasound. Paid part-time work is prorated and calculated by hours.
I remember a time when ultrasound facilities would hire new graduates who were not certified or not eligible for certification and permit them to work a full calendar year before they required the employee to be certified. With government reimbursement for diagnostic healthcare becoming increasingly more challenging, facilities are changing their requirements for a position in their ultrasound labs. This once frequent path is now much less popular. Many sonography graduates complain they cannot find work because they are not certified or eligible for certification. The consequences have been a poor reputation for the career and fewer schools offering an ultrasound education. When graduates cannot find work they are very vocal about their misfortune, announcing their distaste for the profession and proclaiming that there aren’t enough jobs. Their voice is heard across many Internet threads and by word of mouth. Unfortunately, This is a misnomer as there is high demand for certified sonographers, nationally and abroad. There are some employment opportunities for those who are not eligible for certification after graduation. However, it might be necessary to relocate.
Accredited Schools and CAAHEP Accredited Ultrasound Programs
Program accreditation in the US is currently only offered by CAAHEP (Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs), a recognized accrediting body by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). The USDOE (United States Department of Education) recognizes accrediting bodies that grant privileges to schools wanting to offer degree programs. When one inquires about accreditation they should make the distinction that accreditation allows institutions to grant degrees and, therefore, may become a Title IV gateway institution; more commonly known as institutions that offer FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). CAAHEP approved ultrasound programs must follow policies and procedures on length of the program, externship hours, material taught, and credentials for diagnostic ultrasound program directors. CAAHEP also allows private schools to grant government financial assistance. More on CAAHEP here.
If you do not have a 2-year allied health degree that is patient care related or do not hold a bachelor’s degree you may want to attend an accredited school that offers an Associate degree diagnostic ultrasound program (CAAHEP accredited), or bachelor’s degree ultrasound program. This will avoid the tenuous task of searching for willing employers that allow you to gain ARDMS qualifiers (12 months of full-time work with pay) for the best chances at employment after graduation.
Sandra has been working as a receptionist for an imaging center in Chicago. She was making ends meet but wanted to go back to school to become an echocardiographer. Her brother was born with a congenital heart condition and he had many echocardiograms that led to a successful surgery that corrected his condition and allowed him to join sports in middle school. Sandra researched many schools and was overwhelmed. The schools were either too far for a reasonable commute or had a waiting list of 2 or more years. They were also highly competitive and only enrolled 6 students per year. Sandra knew she needed to relocate to attend an echocardiography program that did not have a wait list and needed government assistance to help her during her education if she were to quit her job. Sandra found a popular program that was also CAAHEP accredited and allowed her to apply for FAFSA. She relocated and found a small studio apartment near campus and found a small part-time job at a local fitness center. Sandra graduated in 18 months, with 60-semester credits, and received her Associate degree in Diagnostic Echocardiography. She applied to take the ARDMS examinations after graduation and is now working at a reputable hospital in Chicago.
Sandra became a member of the ASE (American Society of Echocardiography) and the SDMS (Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers). She wanted benefits that included free CME material and educational resources to keep up-to-date with new diagnostic ultrasound information.
Individuals who hold an Associate Degree in a 2-Year Allied Health Field
A standard track for becoming a sonographer is for those who attended a 2-year radiography program that wishes to increase their skill level by learning the craft of diagnostic ultrasound. There are two ways in which the ARDMS recognizes eligibility for radiographers. One, 12 months of full-time paid employment training in diagnostic ultrasound or equivalent hours or two, attendance of a 12-month ultrasound education with an externship rotation. ARDMS Prerequisite 1 allows not only radiographers to apply on this track but also to anyone with a 2-year allied health education such as nursing, occupational health, physical therapy, and respiratory therapy to name a few. As long as the education is 60 semester hours (84 quarter credit hours), is patient care related and has a clinical patient care externship component the applicant can apply to take the ARDMS examinations on this path the SPI (sonography principles and instrumentation) and one specialty examination.
Martha recently graduated from a community college as a radiographer. She received her Associate degree in diagnostic radiography and graduated the top 10% of her class. Her ultimate goal was to become a diagnostic sonographer. After she had her obstetrics ultrasound when she was pregnant with her son Christopher she knew she wanted to become a sonographer and help others make sure their baby was growing and developing healthily. Martha enrolled in a post-graduate program in diagnostic ultrasound at a private school in Montana that was only 12-months in length, delivered online, and required a externship in ultrasound. After she finished the course preparing her for the ARDMS SPI examination she applied and submitted her application along with a check for $225, a copy of her government-issued identification, and her unofficial transcript she acquired from the post-graduate school. She received an approval letter from the ARDMS and needed to choose a date to take her ARDMS SPI examination at an approved testing facility within 60 days from the date of approval. Martha made her appointment date and passed her SPI. She continued her academic course work in general and vascular sonography and attended an externship rotation in New York. After graduation, she received her diploma and applied to take the ARDMS (AB) Abdominal examination. She submitted her $250 check, a copy of her government-issued identification, her clinical verification (CV) form, a copy of her diploma, a letter from her program director, and her transcripts and proceeded with the same procedure when she took the SPI. She passed and is now a certified sonographer in Abdominal and Small Parts ultrasound. She works at a reputable hospital in the greater Manhattan area.
When Martha was a student she became a member of the SDMS. Her student membership was $45 and after she graduated she transferred her member number to a non-student membership for an additional fee. She benefits as a member of the SDMS because they keep track of her continuing medical education hours and she gets discounts on the annual SDMS conference. See more on SDMS benefits here.
Some facilities require more than one certification, but not all. If you have at least one certification, I recommend applying for employment at a major hospital or imaging center. Visit my blog on ultrasound employment here. I caution that some imaging centers may require you to be certified in all specialties you are practicing in. Medicare and Medicaid law verbiage does vary state to state and may be interpreted differently in courts of law. However, you might find that facilities prepare for future changes of Medicare and Medicaid law and might want sonographers to be certified in all specialties that correspond to the examinations they offer in their ultrasound lab despite current laws on reimbursement. More on Medicare and Medicaid laws here.
Individuals who hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Any Field
Another track is for those who have a bachelor’s degree in any US or foreign study. The ARDMS prerequisite 3A calls for proof of a bachelor’s degree along with successful completion of a 12-month ultrasound education to apply to take the ARDMS examinations to become certified.
Daniel attended a university after high school and received his bachelor’s degree in fine arts. His original idea of attending a graduate program faded. He was attracted to the healthcare field after his grandfather had a pulmonary embolism and was hospitalized. Daniel and his grandfather were very close. Daniel spent a few nights with his grandfather and Daniel found himself asking many healthcare related questions to the nurses, doctors, and imaging staff. He found out from the sonographer that his grandfather had a blot clot in his leg and the pulmonary embolism most likely came from a blood clot from a vein in his leg that traveled to his lungs. Daniel knew he wanted to become a vascular sonographer. Daniel enrolled in post-graduate ultrasound program and applied to take the ARDMS examinations immediately after graduation and became certified. He is in his third year of employment making $89,000 annually at a vascular lab in Cleveland, Ohio.
To be clear, there are 2 examinations administered by the ARDMS to pass successfully to become certified through the ARDMS. The SPI examination along with one specialty examination chosen by the applicant is required to become certified. It has been my experience that most applicants choose the specialty examination they feel most comfortable with during their education or have a desire to work in a lab that only offers one specialty (e.g. vascular lab, echocardiography lab, obstetrics and gynecology lab).
If you already have your bachelor’s degree, note that it is not typical to receive government funding for an Associate degree. FAFSA eligibility follows a hierarchy approach and may not grant funding for students who already have a degree. The hierarchy of FAFSA is typically certificate to Associate degree to bachelor’s degree to Master degree and then Doctorate. If you already have a degree you should consider a minimum 12-month certificate or diploma program for the most cost-effective way of becoming a diagnostic sonographer. You can find ultrasound programs at some community colleges and private institutions. I caution you to research your eligibility on government financial assistance for certificate or diploma programs if you already hold a degree.
If you do not have a degree you may think you can simply search out a certificate program to become a diagnostic sonographer. However, the ARDMS does not have any prerequisites for a certificate alone. A post-graduate certificate or diploma (bachelor’s + ultrasound education) in ultrasound education is currently the only way to qualify to apply for the ARDMS certification examinations on this path. Refer to ARDMS prerequisite 3A. If you already have your bachelor’s degree, feel free to search out an Associate degree or bachelor’s degree program as an option. Once again, research what possible benefits, if any, are offered by FAFSA if you need financial assistance for your ultrasound education. If no FAFSA allowances are available to you, contact the school you are interested in to inquire about in-house financial aid, payment plans, or scholarships.
Many post-graduate or post-secondary institutions provide in-house financial assistance for students who may otherwise not qualify for government financial assistance. Or the school may not be a Title IV grating institution therefore not offering FAFSA. Private educational loans, grants, and scholarships are available through public and private organizations to help pay for ultrasound program tuition.
There are other paths to becoming a sonographer though the ARDMS for those with a medical degree, foreign or domestic. Learn more here.