Medical Assistant vs. Sonographer/Ultrasound Technician: What You Need to Know
Ultrasound technologists receive special medical imaging equipment training. This equipment uses sound waves technology (instead of radiation like X-rays or magnetic fields like MRIs) to assess the state and status of tissues and organs inside the human body. The images produced using this equipment are then analyzed to see how well (and if) said images compare to healthy organs, tissues and bones.
Like MRIs, ultrasound is ideally suited for soft tissue diagnostics and, in fact, both of these technologies can be more efficient at diagnosing soft tissue disease than X-rays or radiation. By the same token, X-rays are good at exposing disease within bones or hard tissue, but ultrasound can also be used for such.
Ultrasound diagnostics can be repetitious kind of work, except that you have different parts of the body to assess and, in the case of pregnant women, the work is unique and special because, at this time, ultrasound is the safest (if not the only way) to look at a fetus while still in the womb. MRIs might also be used but ultrasound is preferred.
Ultrasound Technicians (UTs) may work mostly in special sonography equipped facilities or labs but they can also be asked to come to patients that couldn’t be moved; in such cases, sonographers (or UTs) may utilize special portable ultrasound devices or use sonography equipment that is available elsewhere.
UTs have to use their hands a lot, often in repetitious ways using special transducers which transmit sound waves into the area being examined. Areas to be examined are usually prepared with special solutions that help transmit sound waves. Accordingly, UTs need to have good hand/eye coordination.
Ultrasound technician’s median salary of about $54K puts them at a higher pay scale than many MAs, although MAs generally have a longer list of skills and job responsibilities.
Here are some of the major differences between ultrasound/sonography techs and MAs:
- Most sonographers have at least a two-year college degree, though some may still be on the job from past policies that allowed them to possess merely a certificate/diploma from technical schools or be the recipient of special on-the-job training programs.
- Sonographers are pretty much restricted to labs or facilities where ultrasound equipment is kept; they may, however, be deployed to other locations within the hospital as needed, most probably using portable ultrasound devices or devices kept at alternate facilities. In some cases, sonographers make house calls but not as often as, say, nurses.
- Although UTs interact, consult with and may even get feedback from other healthcare professionals, they are mostly independent professionals who answer primarily to the head of the medical imaging department, usually a radiologist (a physician trained in nuclear medicine, X-ray technology and other forms of medical imaging) or some other form of medical imaging specialist.
- Like MAs, UTs may not provide patients with any clinical interpretations or medical advice — in fact, although ultrasound technicians may be qualified to interpret much of what they observe and record, they don’t get to share that with patients but only with their supervisor and, possibly, with whatever physician may have ordered the test.
- As the previous point illustrates, UTs have very limited contact with patients and, if they do interact, it had, by protocol, nothing to do with the test on hand, except for answering a few generic questions and asking questions regarding preferences and thoughts the patient may have about the test being conducted; MAs, on the other hand, may more intensely interact with patients, answer questions about tests and get to know patients more intimately.
- UTs play more of a keeping-secrets role than MAs; there are some things that MAs may not discuss with patients (such as what the doctor will ultimately prescribe, unless the doctor lets the MA know that before the patient asks) but the rules regarding such are more stringent with UTs; anyone that has difficulty keeping information (“secrets”) from other people may not be happy being an ultrasound technician. For example, if you as a UT see that this patient has what appears to be a tumor, can you withhold comments — telling the patient may only upset him/her and it will probably break ultrasonography patient relations protocols.
- Since medical imaging reports are mostly digitized now, UTs have little paperwork to do compared to MAs, who must fill out tons of paperwork, not all of it in the form of electronic files, including forms to process for insurance companies.