Cardiac Sonography vs. Medical Sonography: How Are They Different and Which to Choose

February 10, 2020

Stanford EdTech / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 

It’s not surprising that interest in allied healthcare careers like cardiac sonography and diagnostic medical sonography is on the rise. Everyone – from students who want a career in medicine without spending years in medical school, to people looking for a job change – is curious to explore the opportunities in the ever-growing field of sonography.

Many prospective sonographers are looking to find out which field best suits their qualities and skills. To help them make better decisions, we decided to outline the main differences between cardiovascular sonography and diagnostic medical sonography. We go through the relevant job specifics, salaries and training to reveal everything you need to know before choosing your career path.

Before exploring the various job-related factors in more detail, let’s address what’s at the core of sonography.

How Sonography Works?

At its most basic level, sonography is seeing through a solid material by using high-frequency sound waves that travel a few inches. It works a bit like sonar, except instead of sending sound waves through the water to find ships and submarines, it uses them to create dynamic images of bones, tissues, and organs. Sonography can even visualize tumors, blood flow, and babies.

Sonograms, also known as ultrasounds, use sound waves of around 20,000 Hz. This is just at the high end of human hearing (which is about 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz), so you’re unlikely to hear anything yourself. The higher frequency makes the resulting images very precise. Owing to the accurate visualization, sonography is applicable to the practices of many allied health specialists.

Next, let's look into how ultrasound is applied in diagnostic cardiac sonography.

What Is Diagnostic Cardiac Sonography?

First things first, let’s clarify the terminology. Diagnostic cardiac sonographers are also known as echocardiography technologists. The two terms are often interchangeable, so different job postings and training programs may use one or the other.

How Sonography Works for Cardiac Specialists

Cardiac Sonographers are using sonograms to visualize and look at the human heart. This is where the advantages of the latest ultrasound technology come into effect. The two most important elements here are the structure of the heart and the blood flow within it. Fortunately, by using ultrasound, you can see both, as well as even more details like the types of molecules present.

Nowadays, a diagnostic cardiac sonographer can create a three-dimensional image of a patient’s heart and see where blood is flowing within it. It is used to diagnose a wide variety of heart issues, from fatty tissue buildup to cardiac tumors. Echocardiography technologists use their knowledge and expertise to recognize any possible heart condition and refer the patient to a different specialist when necessary.

Now that we briefly discussed the relevant methods and tools used by cardiac sonographers, let’s explore the training requirements and employment opportunities.

Cardiac Sonographer Training

 N A I T / Flickr / CC BY-ND 

The particular type of training varies between the different cardiac sonography programs. It usually continues for 18 to 24 months which is pretty impressive compared to the average seven years of medical school and specialization in the US.

Most cardiac sonography programs cover a number of different subject areas including foundational courses like medical terminology and anatomy & physiology. Patient care is also an important part of any allied healthcare training program. Students are thought to understand the physics and instrumentation involved in ultrasound, as well as the human factors involved in the job.

Cardiac sonography programs train students in the Adult Echocardiography specialty. This involves studying both the technical specifications of the ultrasound machines used by cardiac sonographers and human anatomy with a focus on the heart.

Learning the psychomotor skills involved in ultrasound is another key element of any program. Students learn how to properly maneuver the ultrasound wand in order to build a complete image of the area of the body they’re trying to diagnose. They also study the technical characteristic of the equipment since they need to be capable of maintaining and looking after it.

Relevant Certifications

Certification is extremely important in the field of sonography. Your employment opportunities will be limited if you apply for jobs prior to becoming a Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer (RDCS) or a Registered Cardiac Sonographer (RCS). Most employers are looking for cardiac sonographers who are registered/certified through ARDMS or CCI. One way to ensure you will be eligible for a certification exam is to attend a cardiac sonography program that has been programmatically accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

Why obtain these certifications? In short, they boost your chances of getting hired as a diagnostic cardiac sonographer. Some employers may have lower requirements, but still having a professional certification makes your resume look stronger when applying for a job. So what is the cardiac sonographer’s job outlook nowadays?

Employment Opportunities

If you’re looking for a good reason to consider a job in diagnostic cardiac sonography, the employment opportunities should be right at the top of your list. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a full range of data on the subject. According to their research, the sonography field is projected to grow with 14% between 2018 and 2028 which is much faster than average.

On top of those growth numbers, the 2018 median pay was $56,850 per year. Having in mind that the typical entry-level requirement is a certificate or an associate degree, those numbers are well above average. Now the only question we still need to answer is where you can actually work.

Diagnostic cardiac sonographers usually work in hospitals, cardiologist offices, diagnostic imaging centers, and mobile imaging companies. This means that in most areas, you can find a range of public and private employment opportunities. Combined with the high demand for this career, the cardiac sonography employment outlook is definitely positive.

How Is Diagnostic Medical Sonography Different?

Much of what’s been written above applies to diagnostic medical sonography. The main difference is that diagnostic medical sonography programs primarily focus on the general concentration of ultrasound (Abdomen and OB/GYN) and often take longer to complete. Let’s look at these differences in more detail.

Program Length

While a cardiac sonography program takes around 18 to 24 months to complete, diagnostic medical sonography programs will often take more than 2 years. The difference in length is usually due to the fact that medical sonography programs that cover multiple specialties.

The breakdown of the classroom and lab hours versus clinical hours is roughly the same, with slightly more time being dedicated to both. In general, the diagnostic medical sonography program is an average of about one year longer than that of a diagnostic cardiac sonographer.

Diagnostic Medical Sonography Training

All of the basic skills you’ll learn in a diagnostic cardiac sonography program will also be covered in this specialization. That includes basic human anatomy, using an ultrasound machine, recognizing and diagnosing specific conditions, and, of course, caring for patients.

Since diagnostic medical sonography covers a much wider range of body areas and diseases, there will be additional subject areas you’ll study. For example, the anatomy of the abdomen and reproductive system will be a focus. Instead of paying particular attention to the heart, you’ll need to learn to visualize and diagnose a variety of other organs and conditions.

Relevant Certifications

Training in diagnostic medical sonography can also be programmatically accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). Students enrolled in a CAAHEP accredited diagnostic medical sonography program able to sit for the Abdomen (AB) and Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN) specialty exams offered by the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS).

While obtaining these additional certifications isn’t a legal requirement to work in most states, many employers do require them. In addition, being certified will certainly help your future career prospects.

Employment Opportunities

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has diagnostic medical sonographers earning a median income of $72,510. That’s about $15,000 per year more than diagnostic cardiac sonographers earn, largely based on the extra training involved for a more in-depth specialization. This sounds like a good reason to go the extra mile and become a medical sonographer.

This field is also experiencing the same rapid growth as diagnostic cardiac sonography. Many of the workplaces are similar, including hospitals, imaging centers, physicians’ clinics, and mobile imaging companies.

The difference is that while diagnostic cardiac sonography is a more specific field, medical sonographers can work in multiple specialties. Where you’d like to specialize is up to you.

Program Requirements

Diagnostic medical sonography programs are typically more difficult to get accepted in. This has a lot to do with the popularity and demand of the field. Higher admission requirements including prerequisite courses, healthcare experience, college degrees, and/or high GPAs are not uncommon.

Interested in Applying? Learn More!

Both of these programs offer fantastic prospects for students ready to take on the challenge. But there’s a lot more to learn about them.

Be sure to check out our Diagnostic Medical Sonographer Program, as well as our Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer Program pages.

Don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions about either program!