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What is the field of medical illustration?


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

What is a medical illustrator?


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, learning and management. Collaborating with scientists, physicians, and other content specialists, medical illustrators serve as visual translators of complex technical information to support education, medical and bio-scientific research, patient care, patient education, public relations, and marketing objectives. They transform complex information into striking images that stimulate imagination, facilitate learning, and record scientific discovery. In addition to producing such material medical illustrators often function as content developers, creative directors, consultants and administrators within the general field of biocommunication and as 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.

Where medical Illustrations 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 publications
  • advertising
  • textbooks and journals
  • web
  • television
  • patient education
  • continuing medical education (CME)
  • interactive learning
  • trade shows
  • museums
  • veterinary, dental, and legal markets

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

While medical illustrations are still 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


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.

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.

Education for a career in medical illustration


Most medical illustrators have a Master's degree from an accredited graduate program from one of five medical schools. There are currently four accredited programs in the United States and one in Canada, each accepting 16 or fewer students per year. Accreditation is from the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). 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, 3-D 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 traditionally work at a:
  • University, medical center, hospital clinic, or healthcare institution
  • 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. Other illustrators become an integral part of the medical research team. Some illustrators become content experts and are authors and co-authors of textbooks, or of articles in which they have made major contributions.

Enhancing a career in medical illustration with board certification


Many medical illustrators choose to enhance their careers by becoming board certified. Certification is a program endorsed by the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI) to encourage lifelong learning and to measure professional competency for practicing medical illustrators. This voluntary certification 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.

There is no relationship between certification and membership in the AMI or any other organization, so any practicing medical illustrator meeting the eligibility requirements may apply.

The certification program is administered by The Board of Certification of Medical Illustrators (BCMI), an independent body that objectively measures and evaluates exam results and awards certification to applicants upon successful completion. The BCMI follows the standards of the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and the National Organization for Competency Assurance (NOCA), recognized leaders in setting quality standards for credentialing organizations to ensure the health, welfare, and safety of the public.

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. Please note however, the CMI credential is not necessary or required for a medical illustrator to be a skilled and successful practitioner. For more information see Certification.

Maintaining a medical illustration career through 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, doing one's own cadaver dissections, organizing computer searches or studying relevant medical articles.

Like most other disciplines that have become more dependent on digital technology, medical illustrators also have to keep up with trends in emerging media as well as undergo periodic training to learn a new platform or new or updated software. To help the medical illustrator remain current, the AMI maintains a listserv, publishes a weekly AMI eNews, offers extensive job placement services, and co-publishes The Journal of Biocommunication, a quarterly academic journal.

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

Earning potential for the medical illustrator


Earnings vary according to the experience 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 median salary for a medical illustrator is $61,000 and can range up to $150,000. Those in supervisory and director positions earn a median of $75,000 and $93,000 per year respectively (2009 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. 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. The median income for a self-employed medical illustrator is $79,000 and can range up to $250,000 per year (2009 AMI survey data). Earnings for business owners who employ other creative staff are even greater with a median of $83,000 and up to $420,000 per year. 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.

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 for medical illustrators


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. Our 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 (iPads and cell 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.

For a more complete list and explanation of career fields of work for the medical illustrator read Medical Illustration Fields of Work.