If you are eyeing a career in healthcare, two popular choices are nurse and diagnostic medical sonographer. Graduates of nursing and sonography degrees enjoy similarly high salaries in occupations that are currently seeing faster than average job growth. However, many students find that a nursing degree offers significant benefits over a sonography degree, including more overall job opportunities, more focus on direct patient care, greater opportunity to specialize in an area of interest and more predictable processes for career advancement.
An Overview of Sonography vs. Nursing
People often confuse nurses and diagnostic medical sonographers—especially in settings like hospitals, where you typically find people in both professions wearing scrubs that are difficult for patients to distinguish between. Both of these roles are important in the healthcare industry, but they encompass different job duties and require distinct educational paths.
Most patients are at least somewhat familiar with nurses. These are the healthcare professionals who provide care to patients under the nursing model of care, as opposed to the focus on disease diagnosis and treatment that physicians and physician assistants hold. Nurses are trained in a model based on nursing theory and frameworks that, generally, revolve around humanistic and holistic approaches to care. There are multiple types of nurses, the most common of which is the registered nurse (RN). Other varieties of nurses may include licensed practical nurses, licensed vocational nurses and advanced practice registered nurses, such as nurse practitioners.
Sonographer is a different, though related, healthcare profession. Going by job titles like diagnostic medical sonographer, ultrasound technician and ultrasound technologist, sonographers are named for the specific type of technology they use in their professional healthcare role: sonography or ultrasound. Sonography refers to a type of medical procedure in which high-frequency sound waves, called ultrasound waves, are used to create images of the tissues, organs and other structures inside a patient’s body.
Are There Nurses That Do Ultrasounds?
Although the roles of nurses and sonographers are distinct, there is some overlap. In addition to both types of healthcare professionals providing clinical care for patients in non-medical capacities, there are some nurses who develop additional skills in sonography so that they can perform some ultrasound work themselves.
These nurses are sometimes referred to as “sonogram nurses,” although this isn’t generally considered to be a separate specialization of nursing practice. Rather, nurses who undertake additional training to learn to use ultrasound equipment such as transducer probes are comfortable performing the diagnostic sonography imaging commonly used in their area of nursing practice.
Outside of registered nurses who build upon their nursing skill set with further training in sonography, ultrasound technicians and technologists are generally not licensed nurses. However, this doesn’t mean that sonographers aren’t held to the high standards required for professional credentials in their own occupation. Generally, ultrasound technicians must attain professional certification from organizations such as the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonographers, the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists or the heart health-focused organization Cardiovascular Credentialing International, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Nurses who perform ultrasound imaging generally don’t need a separate degree to do so, instead learning the skills of sonography techniques through on-the-job training.
What to Expect From Careers in Nursing vs. Ultrasound Tech Work
What is life like for a nurse compared to a diagnostic medical sonographer? Individuals working in both healthcare occupations will typically work with patients in clinical settings on a daily basis, but their job duties are different.
A registered nurse may perform job duties that include taking down patients’ medical histories and observed symptoms, collaborating with physicians and other members of patients’ healthcare teams, assisting with diagnostic tests, administering medications and other forms of treatment and educating patients and family members on the proper care for their conditions. Patients encounter nurses at annual well visits to their doctors’ offices, in specialists’ practices, in hospital emergency rooms, in home health services and in other circumstances.
Sonograms are typically performed for diagnostic purposes but may also be used for therapeutic purposes. Ultrasounds are, perhaps, most closely associated with imaging of babies within the womb of pregnant patients, but techniques of sonography are also used in many other areas of healthcare practice. Sonograms are generally non-invasive and painless, and unlike X-ray imaging, they don’t expose the patient to radiation that, in large or repeated amounts, may prove harmful. They also show internal organs, soft tissues and the flow of blood in ways that a typical X-ray, which is used primarily to produce images of bones and joints, will not.
Nurses care for patients in settings such as hospitals, doctors’ offices and home health services. Ultrasound and sonography technicians may work in any setting where ultrasounds are performed, including doctors’ offices, hospitals, outpatient facilities and freestanding diagnostic imaging centers and laboratories. For some procedures, such as an ultrasound-guided biopsy of a breast lump, patients might have both a nurse and a sonographer tending to them, as well as a specialized type of physician called a radiologist.
The pay for nurses and sonographers is comparable, with the BLS reporting a median annual wage of $75,330 for registered nurses and $75,920 for diagnostic medical sonographers as of 2020.
Does a Sonographer or Nurse Have More Job Opportunities?
Nursing is a much larger occupation than sonographer. The BLS reports that there were 3.1 million registered nurses working in America as of 2020, compared to just 75,900 diagnostic medical sonographers. For both careers, the BLS has predicted a positive job outlook for the decade spanning from 2020 through 2030.
Jobs for nurses are likely to grow by 9 percent during this period, putting the job growth rate on par with the average expected across all occupations, while the BLS expected opportunities for diagnostic medical sonographers to grow at a faster than average rate of 14 percent during the same time. Despite the somewhat faster growth rate expected for holders of sonography degrees over nursing degrees, the overall number of new career opportunities will be far higher for nurses. About 19,100 new jobs will open up for diagnostic medical sonographers and cardiovascular technologists and technicians, while 276,800 new jobs will emerge for RNs.
Nurses also work in a wider variety of work settings. The top employing industry for both occupations as of 2020 was hospitals, which employed 60 percent of diagnostic medical sonographers and 61 percent of RNs, the BLS reported. Another 20 percent of sonographers work for physicians’ offices, 11 percent for medical laboratories and 4 percent for outpatient care centers. About 18 percent of nurses work for ambulatory healthcare services, which include physicians’ offices but also outpatient care centers and home healthcare services, the BLS reported. Nurses also find employment in nursing and residential care facilities, educational services and government entities.
In addition to RNs, there were also 688,100 licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and licensed vocational nurses (LVNs), as well as 271,900 advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) working in the U.S. as of 2020, the BLS reported.
Does Sonography vs. Nursing Have a Greater Role in Direct Patient Care?
Both diagnostic medical sonographers and nurses interact with patients, some of whom may be anxious, scared or in pain. However, the situations in which nurses and sonographers provide direct patient care are different.
In hospitals and many other healthcare settings, patients often spend more time with their nurses than they do with their doctors. The physician may diagnose the medical condition and order treatment, but the nurse is the one primarily working closely with the patient. He or she is the one who gets to know the patient while administering treatments, making observations, educating the patient and family and helping make the patient as comfortable as possible. Interacting with patients, and especially balancing the needs of several patients at once, can be one of the most challenging parts of nursing. However, knowing that you made a difference in the lives of your patients can also be the most rewarding part of this career.
Sonographers’ interactions with patients are more limited. They explain the procedure to patients, record patients’ medical history and perform diagnostic imaging tests with ultrasound equipment, the BLS reported. Beyond that test, sonographers typically don’t provide further patient care. Once they analyze the images, they send their findings to the patient’s doctor and record them in the patient’s medical records. Much of a sonographer’s time is spent not with patients but instead on preparing, operating and maintaining ultrasound equipment and reviewing and analyzing the images attained through testing. Ultrasound technicians still need to have strong interpersonal skills to put the patient at ease during the imaging test, but they don’t interact with patients to the same extent that nurses are typically expected to do.
In addition to their interpersonal skills, both nurses and sonographers need to have communication skills, physical stamina and attention to detail. It is more important for nurses to show compassion and emotional stability, while sonographers need technical skills and hand-eye coordination.
Are There More Areas of Specialization in Nursing or Sonography?
While nurses and sonographers both need broad skills—in patient care and the use of ultrasound imaging equipment, respectively— they also need specialized skills to work in different healthcare specialties and settings. For sonographers, specialties often consist of a certain region or system of the body. Abdominal, breast, cardiac, musculoskeletal, vascular and obstetric and gynecological sonography are among the more common specialties in diagnostic medical imaging, the BLS reported. Some sonographers specialize in pediatric sonography, providing imaging services on different regions of the body for children.
Nurses commonly specialize in a particular patient group or medical specialty, and as such, the specialization options available to nurses are more diverse. Nurses such as neonatal nurses, pediatric nurses and geriatric nurses work with patients in specific age groups. There are addiction nurses who care for patients with substance abuse problems, critical care nurses looking after seriously ill patients in intensive care units and rehabilitation nurses who help patients with disabilities, the BLS reported. Virtually every medical specialty, from cardiology to neurology and oncology to psychiatry and mental health, requires skilled nurses with training in providing patient care in that specialty.
As of 2020, some of the top nursing specialties include pediatric nursing, oncology nursing, emergency room nursing, ICU nursing, dialysis nursing, perioperative nursing and cardiac nursing.
Do Nurses or Sonographers Have a Clearer Process for Career Advancement?
For nurses, there are clear and predictable processes for advancing their careers. That process often requires earning another college degree. RNs who started out with an associate’s degree might enroll in an RN-to-BSN program, while those with a bachelor’s degree can work toward a master’s degree and APRN certification.
The career advancement path can be more confusing for sonographers, if only because nursing degrees are more commonly discussed. The BLS reports that an associate’s degree or certificate is needed to become a sonographer, but colleges also offer bachelor’s degrees in sonography. Some employers require professional certification before they will hire you, while others expect you to attain certification after you are hired. One way to move up in your career is to complete an Advanced Cardiovascular Sonography Program.
Nurse practitioners earned a median wage of $111,680 in 2020, putting their annual wage at more than $35,000 above RN or sonographer salaries.
Should You Major in Sonography or Nursing?
Now that you know the ways that nursing and sonography differ, you can begin to weigh the pros and cons of each career path. Nursing is a larger occupation with more opportunities, but sonography is the field that is currently seeing more rapid job growth. Nurses have more opportunity to build a special bond with their patients, but they also have to deal more extensively with the hassles that can arise in providing patient care.
Both careers require you to earn a college degree—typically, an associate’s degree for sonographers but a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree for nurses—and neither is what you would call an “easy” job. However, if you have the right personality, you’re likely to find either of these roles to be a fulfilling career.
Both nursing students and sonography students take courses in anatomy, science and medical terminology. Sonography degree programs often focus on specialized coursework in the students’ intended field of sonography, the BLS reported.