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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

HEALTH CONNECTION

In sonography, a picture's worth a thousand words

By David Chilton
Special to The Toronto Sun


Margaret MacDonald is a mother of four and a medical sonographer, so she's seen life on both sides of the ultrasound curtain. And she would no more think of swapping jobs than she would trading in her children.

"I always liked medicine, but I didn't want to be a nurse," says MacDonald, a Nova Scotia native.

So in 1979 she enrolled at the British Columbia Institute of Technology in Vancouver, B.C. and trained for two years in nuclear medical technology.
Margaret MacDonald works as a sonographer at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, Ont., and instructs at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ont. To meet the growing demands of the field, she is also completing a three-year degree-granting diploma at Mohawk.


After working in the field for seven years, MacDonald moved on to general medical sonography, or ultrasound testing, as it's commonly known.

"I took on-the-job training at Vancouver General Hospital for a year," she says, "because that was the way it was done then, although you already had to be a medical imaging professional."

Later, in 1989, MacDonald took further training in cardiac sonography at the Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences in Toronto. After six months of full-time training, she began covering maternity leaves and vacations at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, Ont.

"I worked my jobs around my children," she jokes.

MacDonald still works at Credit Valley and is also an instructor at Hamilton, Ont.'s Mohawk College, the only other place to offer medical sonography curriculum in Ontario besides the Michener Institute.

At Mohawk, MacDonald is completing a three-year diploma program that will be replaced this year with a four-year applied degree granted in conjunction with Guelph, Ont.'s McMaster University.

"The demands of the job are getting more complex, and to obtain Canadian certification, sonographers must have a degree by 2010," MacDonald says.

A good grounding in science is essential for anyone considering medical sonography, she cautions, suggesting it will take an 80% to 85% high school average to make it into Mohawk's 120-student medical imaging technologist program.

After a common first year, about 75 of those students will enter the radiography stream and the other 45 will study to become sonographers.

Once they're duly certified, they shouldn't have any trouble finding a job, says Denis Poulin, executive director of the Ontario

Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers, and a sonographer himself.

"There's a shortage of sonographers," says Poulin. "There are very good prospects. There's more work to be done in sonography because procedures are longer."

There's also a bit of poaching going on, Poulin reluctantly allows. Hospitals and clinics in other provinces look to Ontario-trained sonographers to fill their own vacancies, just as they might with nurses or other health-care workers.

For those sonographers who remain in Ontario -- and most do -- they can expect starting yearly salaries of about $35,000 to $45,000, depending on the size of the market, Poulin says.

Melissa Laing is one of those sonography students who wants to stay put. In her last year at Mohawk College, the 24-year-old from Erin, Ont., north of Guelph, hopes to land a position with Cambridge Memorial Hospital, where she's already worked in a non-medical capacity.

Laing hadn't considered sonography as a career, and admits she was casting around for something to do after earning a B.Sc. at McMaster.

"I was faced with that dilemma, 'Now, what do I do with this (degree)?', as were the people in my class. We didn't want to work in a lab. I noticed an institution go up on McMaster's campus and I wandered in and thought, 'What do they do in this building'? I saw they had medical imaging programs. (Sonography) wasn't something I'd wanted to do all my life."

However, now that she's almost qualified, Laing can't say enough about her chosen profession, and is hard pressed to think of a downside. For her, then, and for others entering or already in the profession, medical sonography could be considered picture perfect.

---------------------------

What is medical sonography?

Medical sonography, or the ultrasound, as it's commonly called, is sent into the body from a scanning instrument called a transducer placed on the patient's skin.

The ultrasound is reflected off structures inside the body and is analyzed by a computer to make a picture of these structures on a TV screen.

The moving pictures can then be recorded on videotape.

How many kinds of medical sonography are there?

The usual answer is three: general sonography that is best known for the ultrasound tests taken during pregnancy; cardiac sonography that deals with the heart; and vascular sonography that specializes in blood vessels.

How much does it cost to study medical sonography?

In 2003, tuition at Mohawk College was $1,820 a year, with other study-related costs pushing that figure to about $2,300.

At the Michener Institute, where instruction is offered full time, part time or as distance learning, fees vary.

(Reach freelancer David Chilton at davidchilton@rogers.com.)



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