Medical illustrator career guide

Mar 26, 2018

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.

Medical Illustration

Graphic Artist

Medical Content Editor

Example Duties

▪ Create visuals for interactive learning exercises

▪ Draw anatomical images to accompany medical text

▪ Develop images of biomedical products and their uses

▪ Create 3-D animations for learning materials, museums, or biomedical device companies

▪ Assist with the design of mobile health applications

▪ Review visuals created by illustrators or artists to ensure artistic interpretation is scientifically accurate
Example Employers

▪ Textbook publisher

▪ Legal team

▪ CME company

▪ Biomedical company

▪ CME company

▪ Textbook publisher

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

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.

There can be advantages to regular employed positions as a medical illustrator, as well. Those working within a company may have a more set schedule with consistent work and familiar editors and team members.

Over time, many illustrators may develop a specialty in a particular area such as surgical devices or immunology, or in a certain type of media such as textbook illustration or 3-D animation.

Required Skills and Training

Beyond the scientific and anatomical knowledge required to be a medical illustrator, there also needs to be some natural artistic talent. Either skill with sketching, painting, drawing, or – particularly these days – graphic illustration or 3-D rendering are a necessity. For physicians who entered the field of medicine but who also have a very creative or artistic side, medical illustration or graphic arts can be a great way to combine varied talents.

For those who do not have the artistic chops, but would like to work in the arts and have the medical knowledge, there are positions as medical content editors, which involve reviewing images and content for scientific accuracy.

Required skills include:

  • Science degree and extensive medical knowledge lends credibility to work
  • Comfort with various art media including sketching, sculpting, animation, and graphic design
  • Being detail-oriented in both art and science
  • Ability to visualize complex concepts from words and transform them into figures

Residency, Licensure, and Training Requirements

Board certification and licensure are typically not required. Most medical illustrators hold a masters degree in medical illustration; however, this may not be required for physicians or other healthcare professions who have previously received formal training in the biological and medical sciences.

Is This a Career for You?

Physicians seeking a creative outlet but still wanting to use their medical knowledge may find that medical illustration or graphic arts is the perfect career. Although likely not a career change that a someone can jump directly into due to the skill, technology, and learning curve to master, physicians will have a competitive advantage of understanding what clients want in an image or advertisement. They also will be aptly prepared to serve in medical editor positions in the medical arts ensuring that content is scientifically accurate. 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.

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