How to become a sonographer
AUTHOR: GILL HARRISON, PROFESSIONAL OFFICER FOR ULTRASOUND
A sonographer is someone who “undertakes and reports diagnostic, screening or interventional ultrasound examinations”.
1. Traditional post-graduate route
Many existing health care professionals (HCPs) can enter post-graduate ultrasound training if they have a good first degree. Universities usually require a 2:1 or 1st class Honours degree, although some will accept applicants with a 2:2.
Additionally, students on this traditional route usually have to arrange their own clinical placement, to gain a wide range of hands-on scanning experience for two to three days per week working with qualified sonographers.
For many, this is the challenging part, as there are often several qualified radiographers, nurses, midwives and other HCPs vying for one or two placements per year in an NHS trust or health board.
Most Consortium for the Accreditation of Sonographic Education (CASE) accredited courses enable entry to study a postgraduate certificate (PgC), diploma (PgD) or the full MSc.
In many departments the minimum requirement to practice is a PgC. This is often part-time or in some education centres can be full-time. The PgC generally covers a more limited scope of practice than the PgD. For example, a PgC might include obstetrics and gynaecology, or lower limb vascular ultrasound, whereas the PgD might include obstetrics, gynaecology and general medical ultrasound or upper and lower limb vascular ultrasound. All, however, are the same academic level (FHEQ level 7 in England).
In addition, traditional Pg ultrasound programmes often will take non-health care professionals, subject to securing a clinical placement, meeting the entry requirements of a good first degree, and a thorough understanding of the role and issues associated with being a non-regulated role. This is especially common for the vascular and musculoskeletal routes, however there are a small number of non-health care professionals each year across the UK undertaking obstetrics, gynaecology and general medical options.
2. Direct entry post-graduate route
For people who want to learn ultrasound and achieve an MSc over an intensive 2-year period, there are full-time direct entry post-graduate programmes offering this option. The education providers will arrange clinical placements with ultrasound providers and students are provided a placement site/sites to learn the clinical skills of ultrasound. Courses may be day or block release, offering an opportunity to study the theory and relate that to clinical practice. Currently the Universities of Derby and Cumbria offer this route.
Applications for this programme are via UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service). Anyone considering this should check the deadline for applications, which is usually in January. As with the direct entry post-graduate route, the university arrange clinical placements and liaise with the practice educator in the clinical department to monitor progress.
A new apprenticeship standard is currently being developed. This will also be a direct entry route at BSc (Hons) level to practice sonography. This is an employer led development. Students on this route will be employees in, for example, a clinical imaging department and will undertake the equivalent of four days work based learning and one day per week studying with the recognised training provider.
There are other ways to enter into ultrasound scanning; these include training within Academy for Healthcare Science pathways in vascular ultrasound and echocardiography. Health Education England NHS Scientist Training Programme.
Many education providers now have simulation and/or real ultrasound facilities to assist with the clinical learning during the course. This is particularly common with direct entry programmes for which the entry requirements are often quite high because they are popular. A good awareness of the role of a sonographer in practice, excellent communication and interpersonal skills are required, in addition to being able to demonstrate how you meet the NHS values. There might also be an expectation that an applicant has spent time in an ultrasound department, prior to interview.
Regulation of sonographers
At present ultrasound is not a statutorily regulated profession, which means that anyone who is not already registered as eg a radiographer, midwife, physiotherapist, would not be eligible for registration with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) or the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC).
Many employers do accept sonographers without statutory registration, however others recruit only statutorily regulated health care professionals (HCPs). This needs to be considered when applying for a place on a course and should be discussed with the programme team at interview.
The Society and College of Radiographers (SCoR) administers the Public Voluntary Register of Sonographers (PVRS), which anyone with a recognised ultrasound qualification can apply to join. However, there are some aspects of practice that you would not be able to undertake without statutory registration such as referring a patient for an imaging investigation using ionising radiation, or using Patient Group Directions in the administration of drugs.
For further information see the SCoR’s advice document.
Want to find out more?
The Consortium for the Accreditation of Sonographic Education (CASE) currently accredits UK ultrasound programmes. CASE is made up of six member organisations, who oversee the quality of accredited programmes and monitor standards. CASE has a directory of accredited programmes, which have met CASE standards.
CASE also accredits focused courses; these enable health care professionals to extend their primary professional role, eg midwives undertaking third trimester growth scans. The courses do not lead to eligibility to be classed as a sonographer for entry to the PVRS, which requires a minimum of 60 M level credits in clinical ultrasound practice.