Getting to the heart of what's ailing patients is the lifeblood of cardiovascular technologists, a highly skilled and in-demand group of imaging professionals who help diagnose and treat cardiac and vascular disorders.
Given the needs of an aging population and technological advances that have reduced reliance on heart surgery for treatment, employment of cardiovascular technologists, who earn roughly $20 to $40 an hour, is expected to grow 26 percent through 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In particular demand are cardiovascular technologists who specialize in either cardiac sonography, vascular sonography or cardiac catheterization, says Rick Rigling, clinical manager of cardiology at the Regional Heart and Vascular Center at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut. Here's a closer look at these specialties:
Cardiac and Vascular Sonography
Cardiovascular technologists who use ultrasound to examine the heart and create images called echocardiograms are referred to as cardiac sonographers, or echocardiographers. About half of all cardiac sonographers work in hospitals, and the other half work in physicians' offices.
Cardiac sonographers, whose work is diagnostic and noninvasive, generally perform about eight to 10 echocardiograms a day, says Rigling, incoming chair of the sonography council for the American Society of Echocardiography. Each case begins when the sonographer reviews a patient's chart. Then the sonographer spends about 45 minutes performing the ultrasound scan, saving the images digitally or on videotape. Finally, the sonographer creates a preliminary report for a physician to interpret. "You get to put advanced technology to work and see how the heart relates to a patient's total health," Rigling says. "But the best part is the one-on-one interaction you have with patients. A good sonographer will let a patient watch and will explain as they work."
Vascular sonographers, whose focus is broader than that of cardiovascular technologists, scan blood vessels in the neck, legs and arms and record blood flow, blood pressure and other measurements. Some sonographers are getting credentialed to perform both cardiac and vascular ultrasounds, and Rigling predicts the dual-credential movement will gain momentum.
Cardiac and vascular sonographers must be personable, detail-oriented and willing to deal with repetition, Rigling says. "You see different patients and different situations, but essentially you're doing the same exam over and over."
Cardiovascular technology professionals who work in hospital cardiac-catheterization laboratories (cath labs) help diagnose and treat heart patients. These cath-lab professionals, known as cardiology technologists, assist physicians with cardiac catheterization, an invasive procedure in which a small tube is wound through a blood vessel into the heart to determine whether a blockage exists. Part of the procedure may involve angioplasty, which can be used to treat blockages without heart surgery.
Cardiology technologists use electrocardiograph equipment to monitor patients' blood pressure and heart rate during these procedures. "It's a job that provides instant gratification," says Georgann Bruski, director of invasive cardiology for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "You get to see a patient come in having a heart attack, and you get to see it fixed. You're not just part of the diagnosis but part of the cure."
Another fulfilling aspect of working in the cath lab is the teamwork among cardiology technologists, physicians, nurses and X-ray technicians, says Bruski, president-elect of the Alliance of Cardiovascular Professionals. The fast-paced action in cath labs dictates that the professionals who work there have strong, decisive personalities, she says.
Cath-lab workers spend a considerable amount of time on their feet and are "tied to a beeper" for scheduled on-call hours every few weeks, Bruski says.
Reimbursement Spurs Certification
Most cardiovascular technologists in any of the three specialties -- cardiac sonography, vascular sonography or cardiac catheterization -- hold an associate's or bachelor's degree in ultrasound or cardiovascular technology. Some technologists enter the field after working as nursing aides or X-ray technicians, usually after completing additional education.
Certification is not mandatory for cardiovascular technologists, Rigling says. However, many insurers won't reimburse hospitals and clinics for cardiovascular technology services unless credentialed technologists perform them, he says. That stipulation is forcing more technologists to become certified through a credentialing agency such as the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography or Cardiovascular Credentialing International.