Niki Jacob - Advertising Art & Design Instructor

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. Medical illustrators and animators work with content editors to ensure the accuracy of the media that is produced for medical education, marketing, medical research, or patient education means. The job of medical illustration is important because it helps to clarify or supplement complex material when words alone are not sufficient. Content editors that work alongside these illustrators ensure that the material is appropriately conveyed.

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 ALL

Because 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.

Job Responsibilities

Job responsibilities in the field of medical illustration and graphic artistry can include working with book publishers on anatomical images to accompany text, with biomedical companies to develop images of their product, and with test prep or continuing medical education companies to help supplement course content with anatomical or medical imagery. There is also a subset of medical illustrators who work in medical-legal illustration assisting by providing illustrations for product liability or medical malpractice suits.

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 medical practice
  • Research institution
  • Association (trade or society)
  • Publishing company (books or journals)
  • Software / app company
  • Medical education company
  • Medical legal or law firm
  • Science communication or animation studio
  • Veterinary school
  • Pharmaceutical, device or biotech company
  • Advertising agency
  • Federal government, military

Medical illustrator career guide

Physicians or health professionals who feel that traditional jobs in medicine do not feed their need for creativity are not doomed to an unfulfilling career. If you thoroughly enjoyed your anatomy coloring books, or spent hours admiring Netter’s anatomy images, you may discover that there are career opportunities that are fitting for you in the medical arts. Consider a medical illustrator career or related job.

Medical illustrators and graphic artists are responsible for the images seen in medical textbooks, test prep content, biomedical advertisements, and patient education materials. Those with creative backgrounds, natural artistic talent, or a willingness to obtain the training necessary for a career in the field, will find that it provides a wonderful creative outlet for their interests in both the arts and medical sciences.

Physicians can also serve as content editors in the field of medical illustration or publishing. Medical illustrators and animators work with content editors to ensure the accuracy of the media that is produced for medical education, marketing, medical research, or patient education means. The job of medical illustration is important because it helps to clarify or supplement complex material when words alone are not sufficient. Content editors that work alongside these illustrators ensure that the material is appropriately conveyed.

Job Responsibilities

Job responsibilities in the field of medical illustration and graphic artistry can include working with book publishers on anatomical images to accompany text, with biomedical companies to develop images of their product, and with test prep or continuing medical education companies to help supplement course content with anatomical or medical imagery. There is also a subset of medical illustrators who work in medical-legal illustration assisting by providing illustrations for product liability or medical malpractice suits.

Various job responsibilities may include:

  • Creating 3-D animations for learning materials, museums, or biomedical device companies.
  • Illustrating complex medical information for juries in the case of medical malpractice or liability lawsuits involving biomedical companies
  • Drawing anatomical images to accompany medical text
  • Developing images of biomedical products
  • Analyzing research data and creating figures based on data or molecular interactions
  • Assisting with the design of mobile health applications
  • Creating visuals for interactive learning exercises
  • Sculpting 3-D models for anatomy labs, medical exhibits, or for prosthetic visualizations
  • Reviewing visuals created by illustrators or artists to ensure artistic interpretation is scientifically accurate

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. Some illustrators become content experts and are authors and co-authors of textbooks or journal articles.

There is an expanding need for those proficient in interactive UX/UI design to create e-learning mobile apps, AR/VR platforms, mixed-reality simulations, games, instructional platforms, MOOCs and other applications.

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 / animator in the U.S. is $70,650 and can range up to $173,000. Those with interdisciplinary skills in UX design who create apps and AR / VR experiences are in demand and earn $74,880 – $98,000. Adept professionals who advance their role to art director or creative director earn between $89,000 – $122,000 and up to $250,000 (2018 AMI survey data). About 48% 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 $80,000 and can range up to $1,000,000 per year (2018 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.

Those who have strong visualization skills, natural artistic talent, and great time management skills will do well in this field.

Those who lack the natural artistic talent required for medical illustration may find this a hard career to pursue. For those who are tech savvy and creative, they may be able to pick up on medical graphic illustration with some instruction or with the training obtained in a master’s degree program. They may be better suited for editor or consulting positions in the medical arts. Overall, to excel in this field requires an eye for detail, a strong knowledge of anatomy and biological processes, and the imagination to visualize concepts described verbally or as text.

Work Environment and Schedule

Medical illustrators can work for a variety of companies, including those in test preparation, textbook publishing, biomedical or pharmaceutical development, and legal services.

Many medical illustrators choose to be self-employed, working as freelancers and taking assignments of their choosing. Freelancers may bid for work on a particular project and complete the project within an allotted time period, working during the hours that are most convenient for them. This allows for schedule flexibility and creative freedom, though also requires excellent time management. Self-employed medical illustrators with excellent science knowledge, who are business savvy, and who are able to market themselves and their skills, tend to receive the highest income and be in the most demand. Some may receive ongoing royalties for some of their work.

READ MORE: A day in the life of… a scientific/medical illustrator

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.

How to Become a Medical Illustrator

There are currently three medical illustration programs in the United States that offer accredited programs in medical illustrator education. These medical illustration schools include Augusta University, in Augusta, Georgia; John Hopkins University in Baltimore; and the University of Illinois at Chicago. All medical illustration programs are two years in length and result in a Masters of Science, with the exception of John Hopkins, which offers students a Masters of Arts.

Students enrolled in a medical illustration program can expect courses on subjects including anatomical illustration, medical technology, multimedia rendering styles, and visual problem-solving. Medical illustration schools often share close partnerships with nearby medical schools and museums to give students an interactive learning experience

The University of Toronto is the only medical illustration school in Canada to offer a program in medical illustration to teach you how to become a medical illustrator. Due to small class sizes, entry to all programs is very competitive.

What is the Medical Illustrator Salary Like?

The average medical illustrator salary ranges between $62,000 to $85,000 per year. Medical illustrators can either be employed full-time or on a freelance basis. Salaries tend to be higher for supervisors and artistic directors and can increase with medical illustration experience.

It is common for medical illustrators to be self-employed. In fact, self-employed medical illustrators reported some of the strongest earnings—sometimes climbing to over six figures!

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