A medical illustrator / animator is a professional artist with extensive training in medicine, science, communication and media technology. 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.
Medical illustration is a relatively exclusive field: although the need for their services is great, there is just a small cadre of these highly educated artists in practice. The Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI) estimates that there are 2,000 practitioners in North America.
Health and science visualization is in demand to keep pace with new discoveries, treatments and technologies. Not surprisingly, then, the employment outlook for medical illustrators is excellent. The majority of professionals have master’s degrees and interdisciplinary science education. 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 per year (2013 AMI survey data).
Medical illustrators and animators work closely with physicians and scientists. They produce visual content for journals, books, presentations, magazines, advertising, film, television, Web, interactive and mobile media, virtual reality, exhibits and demonstrative evidence for legal proceedings. 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.
The creative work of medical illustrators must meet exacting standards and solve demanding communication challenges. Some specialize in a particular facet of medicine and can become highly respected and sought after for their skills in such areas as:
- Cellular / mechanism of action animation
- Surgical / medical device illustration
- Medical-legal exhibits / mechanism of injury animation
- Medical app design / Health gaming
- Augmented and virtual reality simulation
Another niche specialization is the creation of sculptured anatomical models and medical simulation trainers for teaching and practicing procedures. This includes use of 3D printers and materials applied to create custom prosthetic implants for patients affected by facial or body disfigurement.
There is also an expanding need for interactive e-learning programs for patient education, student courseware, physician education and pharmaceutical/device sales training. Many illustrators become authors and co-authors of textbooks and journal articles.
As more people demand information about their bodies and health care 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.
Medical illustrators work in a wide range of settings. Many work for medical schools or large academic health centers. Others work in hospitals, medical legal firms, publishing companies, research institutions, veterinary schools or medical education companies. Some medical illustrators work solo, while others are part of large team-based multimedia departments.
Experienced medical illustrators also may start their own businesses, head a group of illustrators or become directors of biomedical communication departments.
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.
Clear communication is a key feature of medical illustration that sets it apart from most fine art. Because content and anatomical accuracy is paramount in the field of medical illustration, it is most rewarding for detail-oriented individuals who genuinely enjoy and have natural ability in both art and science. High school students contemplating medical illustration as a career should take a college preparatory program with as much emphasis on art and science as possible. In college, students should concentrate on art and biological sciences before applying to a master’s program.
The majority of medical illustrators have a master’s degree from an accredited graduate program in medical illustration. There are currently four accredited programs in North America, each accepting between 7 to 20 students each year. The curriculum typically includes both medical science courses and art practice and theory courses.
The Board of Certification of Medical Illustrators is an independent body that administers a two-part test to verify the competency of medical illustrators. The test includes a written exam and a portfolio review. Certification is entirely voluntary. Certification is maintained by obtaining required continuing education credits and renewal every five years.