What is the field of medical illustration?

Medical illustration is a unique applied art discipline comprised of professional medical illustrators and animators. It falls within the more general field of biomedical communication.

What is a medical illustrator / animator?

A medical illustrator is a professional artist with specialized training and advanced education in medicine, science, art, design, visual technology, media techniques, and in theories related to communication and learning. Collaborating with scientists, physicians, and other content specialists, medical illustrators serve as visual translators of complex technical information to support education, medical and life science research, patient care, patient education, public relations, and marketing objectives.

As visualization specialists, they create imagery that advances medical science knowledge and empowers health literacy for patients and the public. They have the medical and scientific knowledge to grasp complex information, distill it down and communicate the story in a clear visual narrative that is accurate, educational and engaging.

In addition to producing such material, medical illustrators often function as content developers, creative directors, consultants and administrators within the general field of biocommunication. Many are business owners and entrepreneurs in the marketplace.

The definition of a medical illustration

A medical illustration is a visual representation that is the result of art skills expressed in a tangible or virtual medium that conveys medical or biological information. An illustration or animation is meant to explain and clarify a complex subject in ways that words alone cannot. Clear communication is a key feature of medical illustration that sets it apart from science-inspired fine art.

 de Kok F 12A 2 web        Coulter medicolegal

Examples of molecular illustration by Fabian de Kok-Mercado (left) and a medical legal exhibit by Lindsay Coulter (right).
 

Where medical illustrations & animations are used

From the human genome to the latest robotic surgical technique, the demand for accurate, effective medical illustration is continuously expanding. Medical illustrations and animations appear in virtually all media and markets used to disseminate medical, biological and related information:

  • trade and consumer publicationsMedical Illustration industries markets
  • textbooks, journals, eBooks
  • Web
  • courtroom exhibits
  • patient education
  • continuing medical education (CME)
  • interactive learning
  • advertising
  • mobile health apps
  • health games
  • trade shows
  • museums
  • veterinary and dental markets
  • television and film
  • augmented and virtual reality simulators

 

Attorneys use medical illustration to clarify complex medical information for judges and juries in personal injury and medical malpractice cases.

While medical illustrations are widely and consistently used for print and exhibits, the trend is toward greater use in multimedia and interactive designs, particularly those involving animation. Many, but not all, medical illustrators also work in three dimensions, creating sculptured anatomical teaching models and museum exhibits, models for simulated medical procedures and prosthetic parts for patients.

Skills required to be a medical illustrator / animator

Content and anatomical accuracy is paramount in the field of medical illustration; images are designed and created to communicate specific content. Therefore, it is most rewarding for detail-oriented individuals who genuinely enjoy and have natural ability in both art and science.

Creative services ALLBecause of the variety of assignments medical illustrators typically experience, they should be accomplished in a wide range of art methods and media production skills to meet the current needs of the biocommunication industry. These methods and skills range from advanced drawing, painting and sculpture techniques in tangible media, to functional concepts and techniques involved in the production of commercial and graphic art, to up-to-date computer graphic skills in still and motion media.

A strong foundation in general, biological and medical science is also necessary to enable the illustrator to fully comprehend and then conceptualize complex biological and medical information. Subjects range from structures in the real world that can be directly observed to the theoretical and unseen, such as molecular processes. Highly developed visualization skills to transform such complex information into two-dimensional and three-dimensional images that communicate to diverse audiences are essential.

Those interested in medical illustration should enjoy working alone and in teams during problem-solving, and be able to work closely with clients to understand not only the project itself but the client's often unspoken needs as well. Writing, research and ancillary computer skills are also valuable.

A proven pathway to acquire the required skills and knowledge to be a professional medical illustrator in today's marketplace is to attend a graduate-level educational program that is dedicated to teaching medical illustration.

Education for a career in medical illustration

Most medical illustrators have a Master's degree from an accredited graduate program from one of four medical schools. There are currently three accredited programs in the United States and one in Canada, each accepting 20 or fewer students per year. Entrance into all of these schools is very competitive. Course work includes:

  • human gross anatomy
  • physiology
  • pathology
  • histology
  • neuroanatomy
  • embryology
  • surgery

 

Students concurrently take classes in everything from the use of electronic media in surgical and conceptual illustration to storyboard creation, interactive media development, web design, animation, 3D modeling, and prosthetics. Graduate programs in medical illustration are two years in length, and admission requirements vary from program to program. For further information on educational programs to obtain a degree in medical illustration, please see Education.

Where do medical illustrators work?

Medical illustrators and animators traditionally work at a:

  • University, academic medical center
  • Hospital, clinic, or healthcare institution
  • Research center
  • Publishing company (books or journals)
  • Corporation, small business
  • Medical legal or law firm
  • Web, multimedia, or animation firm
  • Veterinary school
  • Pharmaceutical company
  • Advertising agency
  • Other (government, non-profits)

 

Today, many are self-employed while others set up small companies or work as an employee or owner in larger commercial enterprises designed to provide services to various markets.

A significant segment of the marketplace is devoted to medical legal illustration, which focuses on producing demonstrative evidence to support expert testimony in medical malpractice, personal injury, and product liability litigation. Fast growing fields of work for the medical illustrator are in computer modeling, animation and interactive design, all of which are in high demand in a wide variety of markets, and which often require larger teams of individuals.

Some medical illustrators specialize in a particular facet of medicine, such as forensic reconstruction, ophthalmological illustration, a specific surgical specialty, or the making of prostheses, often accumulating considerable recognition for their knowledge and abilities in that particular area. There is an expanding need for interactive e-learning programs for patient education, student courseware, physician education, and pharmaceutical/device sales training. Some illustrators become content experts and are authors and co-authors of textbooks or journal articles.

As more people demand information about their own bodies and healthcare options, the role of medical illustrations and animations in patient education and health literacy initiatives is vital to improving public health and patient outcomes. Indeed, a picture is worth a thousand words.

A growing number of medical animators work in research labs analyzing and modeling research data and molecular interactions to guide the data-exploration process as the scientific story is unfolding. Interdisciplinary knowledge in biochemistry, genomics, and computational molecular biology enable this close interaction and blur the lines between scientist and artist.

Earning potential

Earnings vary according to the experience, education, and ability of the artist, the type of work, and the area of the country where one works. The title "Medical Illustrator" is a broad term. Depending on the type of employer and services provided, job skills may include animation, multimedia, interactive development, illustration, web and graphic design. In general, medical illustrators with diverse skills and more responsibility for concept development command higher salaries.  The salaries in the AMI compensation surveys reflect AMI member demographics, the majority of whom have a master's degree education in medical illustration from an accredited graduate program.

The median salary for a medical illustrator or medical animator is $62,000 and can range up to $100,000. Those in supervisory and creative director positions earn a median of $85,000 and up to $175,000 (2013 AMI survey data). About 46% of salaried illustrators supplement their income with freelance work.

Earning potential for self-employed medical illustrators varies widely depending on the type of work (e.g., pharmaceutical, medical-legal, advertising) and an individual’'s skill and reputation. Success as a self-employed medical illustrator does not result solely from the ability to create beautiful art. Business savvy and ability in marketing and self-promotion, pricing and negotiation, and business management are fundamental. Due to the vagaries of the marketplace and competitive forces, the earnings of self-employed illustrators may be less predictable than those who are salaried, but the highest earnings are generally made by those artists whose entrepreneurial expertise, art, and professionalism keep them in constant demand.

The median income for a self-employed medical illustrator is $82,000 and can range up to $580,000 per year (2013 AMI survey data).

In addition to earnings from a salary or freelance projects, some medical illustrators receive royalties from secondary licensing of existing artwork. These reuse arrangements with stock art agencies, publishers, and clients can provide a supplemental, and sometimes significant, source of income.

Employment outlook

Currently, the employment outlook for medical illustrators is good due to the highly specialized nature of our work and the relatively limited number of medical illustrators graduating each year. The profession remains very viable due to growth in medical research that continually reveals new treatments and technologies that require medical illustrations and animations to explain them.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, “Demand for multimedia artists and animators will increase as consumers continue to demand more realistic video games, movie and television special effects, and 3D animated movies. Additional job openings will arise from an increasing need for computer graphics in the growing number of mobile technologies. The demand for animators is also increasing in alternative areas such as scientific research and design services.”

Medical illustrators are also employed as research faculty within healthcare institutions where their unique aptitude is valuable in visualizing, interpreting and summarizing data as well as creating effective, testable patient education tools. Lastly, emerging technologies in informational media delivery systems such as mobile devices (tablets and smart phones), health gaming, and digital medical imaging systems require an expanding array of specially designed digital images and thus, the need for newer, more cutting-edge medical illustrations and animations to populate these devices.

Board certification

Many medical illustrators choose to enhance their careers by becoming board certified. Certification is a program endorsed by the AMI to encourage lifelong learning and to measure professional competency for practicing medical illustrators. This voluntary program is designed to provide the practicing medical illustrator with the recognizable and valuable Certified Medical Illustrator (CMI) credential, which assures stakeholders of their current competency in the profession.

A Certified Medical Illustrator has successfully passed examinations dealing with business practices, ethics, biomedical science, drawing skills, and has undergone a rigorous portfolio review. Competencies are maintained by meeting specific continuing education requirements and must be renewed every five years. For more information see Board Certification.

Continuing education

Medical illustration is a profession in continual growth. Medical research is embedded in nearly every medical illustration assignment, sometimes requiring learning to use medical instrumentation, performing cadaver dissections, organizing computer searches or studying relevant medical articles.

Like most other disciplines dependent on digital technology, medical illustrators also have to keep up with trends in emerging media as well as undergo periodic training to learn new platforms or software. To help the medical illustrator remain current, the AMI maintains a listserv, publishes a weekly AMI eNews, offers member tutorials and online courses, and co-publishes an academic journal The Journal of Biocommunication.

In order to maintain certification, however, more formal continuing education is available through the AMI as well as outside educational venues. Continuing Education Unit (CEU) credits are offered for workshops and educational sessions presented at AMI annual meetings, at AMI-sponsored regional meetings, and for educational experiences in outside venues that meet the criteria for CEUs.