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Echocardiogram, or "echo" for short, is a painless procedure that uses sound waves to create moving pictures of your heart. These images show the size and shape of your heart, as well as your heart’s valves and chambers. An echo is also used to detect blood flow or to assess damage caused by a heart attack or other cardio infractions. The medical professionals who administer this exam are called echocardiologists. Also called cardiovascular technologists or vascular technicians, echocardiologists are trained to pinpoint problems in your heart, detect blood clots and evaluate the overall condition of your heart. To become an echocardiologist, you need specialized training, have an understanding of the different types of echocardiology, and to become certified.
There are a number of ways to gain the education and training needed to become an echocardiologist. Some colleges offer associate or bachelor’s degrees in echocardiography or echocardiology technology, while other schools offer certificate programs that can be completed in 12 to 24 months of study, depending on each program’s requirements. Each option includes courses that cover the principles of echocardiography, cardiovascular concepts, echocardiographic evaluation and the technology and equipment used in echo exams. For those enrolled in associate and bachelor’s degree programs, additional courses in mathematics, anatomy and physiology, psychology, pharmacology and the liberal arts round out the program.
Each program includes intensive didactic and clinical training in a hands-on health care setting. In these settings, students learn how to conduct an echocardiogram. Working along side health care professionals on real patients, students learn how to effectively measure ventricular volume and mass, cardiac performance during exercise or pharmacologic intervention, coronary flow reserve and contrast and 3D reconstruction. Students also learn how to interact with patients, the basics of health care management and the role echocardiologists play in hospitals and health care settings.
While certification is not required to enter the filed, many employers prefer to hire certified echocardiologists. In addition, many insurance companies will only pay for an echocardiogram if it is performed by a certified technician. Certifications are offered by a wide range of organizations, including The National Board of Echocardiography and the American Society of Echocardiography.
Types of Echocardiology
There are five types of echocardiography: transthoracic, stress, transesophageal, fetal and three-dimensional. Certification may be obtained in one or all of these areas. Transthoracic echocardiography is the most common type of echocardiogram. It involves a device called a transducer, which is placed on the chest. Sound waves bounce off structures in your heart and a computer converts them to images that are viewed on a screen. Stress echocardiography is done as part of a stress test. During exercise, a technician creates images of your heart at work. Transesophageal echocardiography is when a transducer is inserted down your throat and into your esophagus to obtain detailed images of your heart. Fetal echocardiography is used to look at an unborn baby's heart to check for heart problems. For this exam, a transducer is moved over a pregnant woman's belly. Three-dimensional echocardiograms create 3D images of your heart for doctors to see how your heart looks and how well it works.
Laura La Bella has worked as a marketing communications writer and editor in the fields of advertising, development and higher education for more than 15 years. She has authored more than two dozen nonfiction books for young adults, covering biographies of socially relevant people, timely social issues and career paths.