Earning Your Ultrasound Technician Certification

How to choose the right sonography certification

Earning an ultrasound technician certification is one of the best ways to begin a career in the medical sonography field. Ultrasound technicians are trained to operate medical equipment that uses high frequency sounds to create diagnostic images for medical treatment and diagnostic purposes. Ultrasound technicians may go by many other job titles, such as diagnostic medical sonographer, ultrasonographer, medical sonographer, or ultrasound technologist. Regardless of the title, the necessary education and certification are necessary to begin work. Read on to learn more about the potential certifications in this fast-growing field.

Timeline: How to Become a Certified Ultrasound Technician

Becoming a certified ultrasound technician generally requires formal education with special training. Depending on prior experience and academic goals, there are several pathways to get there, from one-year programs to the bachelor’s degree. The timeline below outlines the most common steps to becoming a certified medical sonographer.

Obtain a high school diploma Four years

A high school education or GED equivalent are typically a prerequisite for any higher education sonographers will need.

Attend an accredited ultrasound program Two to four years

Students can opt for certificate programs, associate degrees or bachelor’s degrees in ultrasound technology. Associate degrees are the most popular option for this career. Choose a program accredited by the CAAHEP.

Gain real world experience Usually one year

Whether gained during or after schooling, some work experience in medical sonography will be required in order to become certified.

Study for certification Varies

The length of time to prepare for certification exams will vary, but at a minimum, students should take practice exams and review study outlines and notes to prepare.

Become certified A few months

Once ultrasound tech education and work experience requirements are met, applicants can decide between several helpful certifications. Applicants must pass the necessary examination(s), pay required fees, and complete registration paperwork to gain certification.

Why Get Certified in Sonography?

In the few states where diagnostic ultrasound technicians must be licensed, certification will be required. But assuming an individual will not be working in one of these states, it is still very important to obtain ultrasound technician certification. Here’s why:

Certification can improve employment opportunities

The reality is that certification is usually needed just to meet the minimum eligibility requirement for a sonography job opening. When certification isn’t officially required, most individuals applying for a given sonography position will be certified; this higher level of education and experience might give them an edge over other applicants.

Certification ensures up-to-date knowledge in the field

Most recognized certifications will require certified ultrasound technicians to take a certain number of continuing education credits over a particular time period. This forces ultrasound technicians to stay up-to-date with recent trends and breakthroughs in the ultrasound area.

Ability to specialize in a particular area

Many sonographers will work within a particular area or with a certain patient population, such as heart patients or pregnant women. Either way, most sonographers will have the professional opportunity to specialize; in order to take advantage of these opportunities, sonographers will need to become certified in these areas.

Certifications for Ultrasound Technicians & Sonography Professionals

Technically, ultrasound technicians are not required to obtain certification in order to work in sonography. However, most hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices strongly prefer to hire those who are certified. Certification demands a minimum level of education, usually completion of an accredited sonography program. Students must also complete one or two exams to obtain certification. Two of the major certifying organizations are the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonography® (ARDMS®) and the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists® (ARRT®).

American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonography® (ARDMS®) Certifications

The American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonography® (ARDMS®) is a leading provider of certifications for professionals who work with ultrasound in the medical field. ARDMS® administers a wide range of ultrasound specialization certifications and also provides volunteer opportunities and networking opportunities for ultrasound professionals.

  • Certification
  • Examination Needed
  • Specialty Examination
  • RDMS: Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer The RDMS certification is a generalized credential that certifies a sonographer has general knowledge of diagnostic medical sonography and can provide services safely. Ultrasound professionals who want to work in specialty areas will be most interested in this certification.

  • Sonography Principles and Instrumentation Examination

  • Abdomen Breast Fetal Echocardiography Obstetrics and Gynecology Pediatric Sonography

  • RVT: Registered Vascular TechnologistThis credential focuses on safe diagnostic sonography of the vascular system in the human body, such as veins and blood vessels. Those interested in the circulatory system would be interested in this certification.

  • Sonography Principles and Instrumentation Examination

  • Vascular Technology

  • RMSKS: Registered Musculoskeletal SonographerThe RMSKS certification assures a sonographer is knowledgeable and skilled in providing effective and safe diagnostic ultrasound services of the muscle and skeletal systems in patients.

  • Sonography Principles and Instrumentation Examination

  • Musculoskeletal Sonographer Examination

  • Midwife Sonography CertificateThis credential, starting in 2017, is intended for the midwife who uses ultrasound technology in the course of their duties. This certification will ensure that midwives engaging in sonography will have the necessary knowledge and skills to provide ultrasound services in a safe and beneficial manner.

  • Midwife Sonography Examination

  • N/A

Source: American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonography® (2016)

ARDMS® Sonography Principles & Instrumentation (SPI) Exam: What You Need to Know

The SPI exam is the cornerstone test for the various ARDMS® certifications available to ultrasound technicians. Professionals who plan in specializing in a particular area, such as pediatrics, cardiac care or obstetrics, will need to pass this certification exam. Therefore, the SPI exam is generally taken in conjunction with another specialization exam.

Who needs to take the SPI exam?

Anyone who wishes to obtain RDMS, RDCS, RVT or RMSKS certification will also need to take the SPI exam. Even though these certifications will require a corresponding specialty exam, the SPI exam is also required to test individuals on basic skills and concepts that all sonographers need to know, such as diagnostic effectiveness, equipment and scientific theories underlying sonography.

What is the format of the exam?

The SPI exam takes two hours to complete and consists of 110 multiple choice questions and a series of Semi-Interactive Console (SIC) questions. The SIC questions test the sonographer’s ability to manipulate a hypothetical ultrasound console so that the settings are modified to achieve the desired ultrasound testing goals. In essence, SIC questions are mini simulation questions where the test-taker will show that they are proficient in using ultrasound equipment.

What is the 5-Year Rule?

The 5-year Rule requires that applicants seeking RDMS, RDCS, RVT or RMSKS certifications complete both their SPI and specialty exams within a five-year period. It doesn’t matter which exam is taken first, as long as they’re both completed within five years. This five-year rule does not apply if a sonographer wants to take an additional specialty exam for a credential already obtained.

Are there any prerequisites for taking the exam?

Prerequisites required for the SPI exam depend on the background of the applicant. However, there will always be an education and/or experience requirement. The experience requirement depends on the educational background of the applicant, but ranges from no experience required to four years of clinical ultrasound or vascular experience. Educational requirements range from a high school diploma to a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree.

What if I’m an international student?

International students are eligible to take the SPI exam, but if they have an international degree, they must have their degree evaluated by a Foreign Education Transcript Evaluation Organization. Alternatively, applicants who have an active MD or DO may submit a copy of an Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates certification.

How do I apply?

The application process begins with registration at the ARDMS® website. Applicants will fill out an online application, pay a $200 application fee and submit the necessary documentation.

How is the test scored?

The SPI exam has a scaled score that ranges from between 300 and 700. In order to pass, a test-taker must score at least a 555. This score does not represent a percentage of correct answers or a curve. Instead, each exam administration is analyzed individually for determination of what minimum test-taker performance will be required to achieve a score of 555.

Are practice tests available?

The ARDMS® provides two online practice exams. Each test is only 30 questions long and takes 30 minutes to complete. These practice exams also include Semi-Interactive Console (SIC) questions. Even though these practice exams are not full length exams, they represent the topics covered and difficulty test-takers can expect. These practice tests may be taken multiple times, but the questions will not change.

Source: American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonography® (2016)

Staying Certified:
How to Maintain Your ARDMS® Certification

Maintaining certification ensures a sonographer stays up-to-date on the most recent and pertinent information available. There are a few major steps that must be completed each year for a sonographer to maintain ARDMS® certification.

Fee & Attestation

Every ARDMS® certified individual must pay their annual fee. For those with the RPVI and RMSK certifications, the renewal fee is $100; for the RDMS, RDCS, RVT and RMSKS, the renewal fee is $75. In addition to paying the fee, certified sonographers must also attest that they have followed all of the ARDMS® rules and policies and are in good standing with the ARDMS®.

Continuing Medical Education (CME)

During a three-year period, certified sonographers must complete 30 CME credits. Depending on the certification, a portion of those 30 CME credits must be in an area relating to the sonographer’s specialization, such as musculoskeletal or vascular ultrasound.

For a list of CME providers approved by the ARDMS®, click here.

Spotlight On: School Accreditation

Accreditation is extremely important for those entering a formal ultrasound program, for a few reasons; first, many employers will require new hires to have the relevant degree or certificate issued by an accredited educational institution, and second, some certifications can only be obtained if the applicant graduated from an accredited program. The following table explains how ultrasound certifying bodies view accreditation.

ARDMS®

There are many different paths individuals can take to meet the prerequisite requirement for becoming certified through ARDMS®, and not all of them require completion of an accredited program. However, one of the paths requires completion of a program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Canadian Medical Association (CMA).

vs
ARRT®

The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists® (ARRT®) requires applicants to have completed a program accredited by an organization recognized by the ARRT®. A list of the AART recognized accrediting bodies can be found here.

The American Registry of Radiologic
Technologists® (ARRT®) Certifications

In addition to the ARDMS®, the ARRT® is a leading provider of sonography certifications. Some certifications offered include sonography, vascular sonography and breast sonography. ARRT® offers these certifications in two pathways, primary and post-primary.

Primary Pathway

The primary pathway certification is available in five areas: sonography, radiography, nuclear medicine technology, radiation therapy and magnetic resonance imaging. This pathway is designed for those without prior certifications. Applicants must demonstrate a requisite level of competency in didactic coursework.

Post-Primary Pathway

The post-primary pathway certification is intended for those who already have an ARRT® certification in one of the following fields: radiography, nuclear medicine technology, magnetic resonance imaging or radiation therapy. Alternatively, they may have a certification provided by the ARDMS® as long as it’s in a sonography related area. An applicant must also show a certain level of clinical experience.

Education Requirements Ethics Requirements Exam Requirements
Primary Pathway:

All applicants must have obtained an academic degree from an accredited sonography program. The degree must be recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the United States Department of Education.

Post-Primary Pathway:Because applicants will already have a certification, the only notable educational requirements consist of at least 16 hours of relevant structured education.
Applicants must be of good moral character and follow the ARRT® ethical guidelines. This includes not having any honor code violations or instances of other certifications or licenses being revoked for disciplinary reasons. There is also a reporting requirement, which requires individuals to report to any felony or misdemeanor convictions. However, juvenile convictions and traffic violations (not involving drugs and alcohol) do not need to be reported. The sonography certification exam is computer-based, consists of 400 questions and lasts 7.5 hours. The exam ensures the test taker possesses the minimum level knowledge and skills to complete their job duties for the typical entry-level position. Major topics covered by the exam include the scientific principles of ultrasound technology and specific ultrasound procedures for certain types of patients.

Source: American Registry of Radiologic Technologists® (2014)

ARRT® Sonography Examination: What You Need to Know

The ARRT® Sonography Examination is very thorough, as it lasts over seven hours and consists of 400 questions covering all pertinent topics. Some topics are emphasized more than others and therefore comprise a higher percentage of the exam’s questions. The following chart details the breakdown of the test question topics and what test takers can expect.

Patient Care

The primary concepts include legal rights of the patient, effective communication with the patient, how to monitor the patient and maintaining patient safety.

Physical Principles
of Ultrasound

As the single largest section on the exam, questions focus on the scientific principles of ultrasound, how things work and what all the different concepts and principles mean within the medical diagnosing context.

Abdominal Procedures

This section covers the physiological makeup of the abdominal area, such as organs and the vascular system. Abnormalities and practice guidelines are also covered.

Obstetrical and
Gynecological
Procedures

The second-largest section covers obstetrics and topics related to gynecology. Questions cover how to properly diagnose and gather data during all phases of a pregnancy.

Superficial Structures
and Other Sonographic
Procedures

These questions cover the superficial components of the human body, such as the neck. Questions will include how to conduct certain ultrasound procedures that are normally provided in conjunction with other medical care.

Source: American Registry of Radiologic Technologists® (2014)

Staying Certified: How to Maintain Your ARRT® Certification

Like other ultrasound technician certifications, there is an ongoing obligation for ARRT® certification holders to maintain their credential. This usually consists of acting in accordance with ARRT® ethics, paying an annual fee and completing continuing education requirements.

ARRT® Rules and Regulations & ARRT® Standards of Ethics 

A certification holder must remain in good standing with the ARRT®. This means that must comply with all relevant ARRT® Rules and Regulations as well as the ARRT® Standards of Ethics.

Continuing Education Requirements

Every two years, certification holders must complete at least 24 continuing education credits, or the holder may meet all 24 credit requirements by passing an additional ARRT® approved certification exam. More information about meeting the continuing education requirements can be found here.

Continuing Qualifications Requirements (CQR) 

An ARRT® certification lasts 10 years. This means all certification holders must be recertified 10 years after their original certification. This CQR process consists of creating a professional profile, going through a self-assessment process and taking additional continuing education credits. The CQR process is still being developed, with more information available at the ARRT®’s website.

Additional Job Requirements for Ultrasound Technicians

Becoming a successful medical diagnostic sonographer requires a tremendous amount of training and skills. Much of this will be taught and tested during an ultrasound educational program and in preparation for certification. However, there may be some additional requirements in order to legally practice as a medical sonographer or successfully complete job tasks.

Hand-eye coordination

A significant portion of an ultrasound technician’s job is proper use of ultrasound equipment. This requires the careful placement of an instrument on the body, with subtle changes in depth and angle to obtain the best ultrasound image possible.

Visual acuity

Ultrasound machines produce visual images using sound waves. As a result, the image produced is not the most clear and it takes a keen eye to be able to identify exactly what is being depicted on the screen.

Communication skills

One way ultrasound technicians can be more effective is to listen carefully to information provided by the patient. In order to get this information, good communication and interpersonal skills will be helpful.

Licensure

Most states do not require ultrasound technicians to be licensed, but a few do. They are: Oregon, New Hampshire, North Dakota and New Mexico. However, those who are not working in those states might turn to certification anyway, to enhance their employment and advancement opportunities.

Beyond Sonography:
Optional Certifications for Ultrasound Techs

Some ultrasound technicians might choose to pursue other certifications that broaden their employment horizons. In addition to ARRT® and ARDMS® certifications, there are several others that are truly optional, but will improve a sonographer’s chances of professional advancement and taking on additional responsibility.

Vascular certification

Ultrasound technicians in this specialty often have a great degree of independence because they provide preliminary information about a patient’s vascular system to the corresponding surgeon, cardiologist or radiologist.

Basic Life Support (BLS) certification

Basic life support certification requires a brief training regimen that teaches individuals how to resuscitate someone whose heart or breathing has stopped. The primary component of BLS certification is learning CPR.

EMT certification

Building off of the BLS certification, the EMT certification goes a step further and provides additional life saving training. This additional certification can help sonographers stand out, as it makes them more capable of handling a wider variety of emergencies in certain areas, such as a trauma department or outpatient clinic.