Are you a dab hand with a pencil? Are you fascinated by human anatomy? Do you want your illustrations to have a practical function, rather than just aesthetic appeal? When someone asks you to draw the human body, do you go way beyond simply doodling a stickman (or stickwoman) on the back of a napkin? Well then, perhaps you should think about becoming a medical illustrator.
This niche profession actually also incorporates elements of photography, videography and graphic design, as well as artistic illustration. These guys work in hospitals, healthcare facilities, medical schools, universities, research and development centres, pharmaceutical companies, medical equipment manufacturers and medical publishers.
If you enter this profession, you will provide a range of different services for the purposes of medical research, record keeping, diagnosis and patient care.
Medical illustrators that focus on photography and video production are involved in recording still or moving images of different parts of patients’ bodies which have suffered damage or have been affected by illness.
They also document operations, treatment procedures and patient progress for training and development purposes (kind of like Fabio Capello showing the England team videos of their individual performances to highlight their mistakes in international friendlies). These images can also be used to educate trainee doctors and budding medical scientists.
On the other hand, medical illustrators that concentrate their efforts on graphic design and illustration are mainly involved in creating visual charts, posters, websites and other resources used for marketing, publishing, education and research and development activities.
Nowadays, most medical illustration is carried out using state-of-the-art tools and techniques, such as 2D and 3D imaging and software applications, such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.
Salary & benefits
Medical illustrators and photographers receive a starting salary of around £18,000 to £20,000, while professionals with more than five years’ experience can earn between £30,000 and £35,000 a year.
Senior medical illustrators that move into advanced research and teaching roles can even earn up to £52,000 per annum.
Many medical illustrators also supplement their income with external freelance projects.
Medical illustrators work about 35-40 hours per week on a nine-to-five basis. However, you may occasionally have to work extra hours, but working on national holidays and weekends is rare.
The Health Professionals Council (HPC) is currently introducing new guidelines where a distinction is made between medical photographers and medical illustrators.
Medical photographers will need to obtain a degree in clinical photography or other specialist degrees which are approved by the British Institute of Professional Photography. In addition, you’ll need to get three years of relevant work experience to register as a medical photographer.
To become a medical illustrator, you will need a degree or diploma in medical illustration, graphic design or clinical photography. Becoming a registered member of the Institute of Medical Illustrators (IMI) is also recommended.
Training & progression
Training and development is mainly facilitated through gaining ‘on-the-job’ experience. However, new guidelines for medical photographers mean that state registration is now a mandatory step towards working in this profession.
Career progression is therefore determined by the organisational hierarchy of the NHS. Diploma holders start at a basic grade, while graduates start at the next applicable level. Upward progression is dependent on the completion of additional professional qualifications.
An alternative option is to develop a career in the private sector, as more and more companies are entering the field of medical services, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment manufacturing.
Competition is stiff, however, and thus flexibility with regards to geographical location is essential for taking advantage of the limited amount of promotion opportunities.