If you're studying photography, graphic design or art and have an interest in anatomy, a career in medical illustration could be for you
Medical illustrators produce resources such as photography and graphic images for professionals involved in patient care, teaching, education and research. There are four specialist areas:
- clinical photography
- graphic design
- medical art
All demand advanced technical ability and an understanding of anatomy.
As a medical illustrator, you'll be categorised as a healthcare scientist and employed primarily by:
- medical schools
- research establishments
- specialist publishers.
Photographers and video producers are involved with delivering visual records of patients' conditions, operations and treatments for medical files, education and research.
Graphic designers and artists create artwork for:
- audiovisual lecture material
- corporate publications
The work varies according to the size of the hospital department or private company. A hospital department usually has a number of medical illustrators and perhaps one member of staff who specialises in video filming and production.
As a clinical photographer or videographer, you'll:
- take and process photographs or films of patients, often concentrating on just one part of the body that has been affected by illness or injury
- undertake more specialised photography, such as 3D imaging or using specialist cameras, to photograph the structures of a particular part of the body, e.g. the eye, photographing the lens, cornea and retina
- arrange the necessary consent from patients
- take photographs or films of medical equipment to be used by clinicians for teaching purposes
- photograph hospital personnel, buildings and events for use in publicity materials and use desktop publishing packages to produce materials, such as the hospital trust's newspaper or annual report
- specialise in specific areas of photography, e.g. bereavement photography (photographing babies that have been stillborn or have died shortly after birth for parents to keep in remembrance) or forensic photography (photographing 'non-accidental injuries', such as human bite marks)
- use computers to download, edit and process digital images or films, using software packages such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, or Kodak Photo Desk
- manage and train staff at more senior levels.
As an artist or graphic designer, you'll:
- produce artwork and designs for posters and patient information leaflets
- create presentations, posters, illustrations and slides or overhead transparencies of patients and treatment procedures for use in lectures, conferences and medical journals
- use 3D illustration/animation software such as Maya, OsiriX or Zbrush
- design websites, such as hospital trusts' websites, for patients, doctors and the general public
- plan the layout for annual reports and other corporate material.
Pay and conditions for medical illustrators within the National Health Service (NHS) are covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) pay rates, consisting of nine pay bands.
- Typical starting salaries for junior medical illustrators working in the NHS are between £20,150 and £23,363 (Band 4), rising to £23,023 to £29,608 (Band 5) with experience.
- Senior medical illustrators earn £28,050 to £36,644 (Band 6), while a head of department at a university teaching hospital or university medical or dental school can earn around £55,000.
There is more flexibility in university teaching hospitals' pay scales. Departments are usually larger, so senior staff have greater responsibility and higher salaries.
You can increase your income with freelance work in photography, illustration for medical books, or web design.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
The typical working pattern is 37 to 40 hours Monday to Friday, although you may be required to work additional hours from time to time.
There may also be a need to work some evenings on call, particularly in hospitals that provide emergency services.
Self-employment and freelance work are often possible, as are job-sharing and part-time opportunities.
What to expect
- You'll generally work in a team environment, liaising with other illustration staff and medical and healthcare professionals, as well as outside contacts, such as printers.
- As well as the technical side, you may work closely with patients, which might be distressing.
- If you specialise in photography, you'll spend much of your time working in departmental photographic studios. Graphic designers and medical artists are largely office-based with little or no interaction with patients.
- Dress is usually casual, with smarter clothes worn for events. If you're working in a clinical environment, hygiene and protective clothing guidelines must be observed.
- A substantial proportion of entrants are women.
- Jobs are available in most areas of the UK, wherever there are hospitals, but competition for posts is high.
- Illustrators, who do photographic work for a hospital trust, may have to travel to various hospital sites to photograph patients in wards, clinics or operating theatres.
- Overnight absence from home is uncommon, as is overseas work or travel.
The profession is making each area of work more specialised and professionally recognised, so it's important to check with the relevant professional body about the required qualifications.
Relevant degree and HND subjects include:
- clinical photography
- graphic design/illustration
- medical illustration
If you're on the following recognised courses, you are entitled to join the Institute of Medical Illustrators (IMI) as a student member:
- BSc (Hons) in Clinical Photography from the University of Westminster, which is the only full-time undergraduate course in the UK
- Graduate and Postgraduate Certificates in Clinical Photography or Graphic Design for Healthcare from Staffordshire University
- Postgraduate Certificate in Clinical Photography at Cardiff University
- MSc in Medical Art and MSc in Forensic Art and Facial Identification at the University of Dundee
- MSc in Medical Visualisation and Human Anatomy, run by the Digital Design Studio, Glasgow School of Art
- Postgraduate Programme in Medical Art at the Medical Artists' Education Trust, which leads to membership of the Medical Artists' Association of Great Britain (MAA).
Clinical photographers need a degree in clinical photography. Details of undergraduate and postgraduate courses are available at the IMI. If you have a degree in a different photographic discipline, for example from the British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP), you can apply for a position as a trainee and take a one-year, graduate or postgraduate certificate in clinical photography while working.
Either route will involve practical experience and will make you eligible for professional membership of the IMI. You will also be eligible for entry onto the register of the Academy for Healthcare Science (AHCS). This is a particular requirement for those working in close contact with patients.
Medical graphic designers, artists and web designers are expected to have a degree in design or another relevant media discipline. Some experienced designers transfer to the profession from the commercial sector.
Many videographers are qualified as clinical photographers and will gain registration through that route. Like clinical photographers, they work directly with patients and it's likely that registration in this field will be a requirement eventually for those who enter the profession by a different route.
Diplomates and graduates with qualifications in graphic design, illustration or photography should aim to find an employer willing to allow them to study part time for a graduate or postgraduate degree in medical illustration. Alternatively, diplomates should consider upgrading their qualification to a degree through further full-time study.
Entry without a degree or HND is not possible.
You'll need to have:
- a genuine interest in the scientific application of your skills and in the treatment of disease
- time management and organisational skills
- technical and creative or artistic ability
- attention to detail and a methodical approach
- a sensitive and tactful attitude, the ability to deal confidently with a range of people and quickly establish a rapport with patients or healthcare professionals
- an understanding of anatomy and biology
- IT literacy, as each specialism involves substantial work on computers, both Apple Macs and PCs
- a reasonable level of physical fitness, as you may be required to lift and carry equipment.
You'll need a good portfolio of work with examples of clear, detailed images. See the BIPP for information about student membership - joining will make you eligible to attend their Portfolio Builder Days and Portfolio Reviews, which are held at various locations.
Pre-entry experience, such as a placement or project, perhaps as part of a degree course, would be very helpful, as would any experience of working in a caring capacity. Medical illustration is a small profession with a limited number of vacancies, so work experience can make you stand out to an employer.
It's a good idea to contact the medical illustration department in your local hospital and ask about visiting the department and possibly undertaking an unpaid placement.
Around half of all medical illustrators are employed by hospital trusts - others work for university medical schools.
The larger departments are generally found in university hospitals, particularly in cities such as:
Some medical illustration departments have only a handful of staff and there are even a few 'one-man bands', with just a single medical illustrator providing photography, graphic design and related services.
There may be a limited number of posts in private hospitals and medical facilities, and with private companies that provide medical services or develop medical or pharmaceutical products.
A few medical photographers work entirely on a self-employed or freelance basis.
Look for job vacancies at:
- British Journal of Photography
- Creative Review
- Design Week
- Institute of Medical Illustrators (IMI)
- NHS Jobs
- NHS Scotland Recruitment
- Ophthalmic Imaging Association (OIA)
Look at individual hospital or medical school recruitment sites, web design studios and graphic art studios for freelance work, as well as the local and national press.
Graduates entering medical illustration departments start by gaining some experience on the job and then take further qualifications.
There are two distance learning courses aimed at people already working as medical illustrators:
- Cardiff University's Certificate in Clinical Photography
- Staffordshire University's Certificates in Clinical Photography and Graphic Design in Healthcare.
A programme of continuing professional development (CPD), which reflects the requirements of the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC) is offered by the IMI.
As well as CPD, you'll benefit from maintaining a personal professional portfolio, making contacts and keeping up to date through professional bodies such as the BIPP, the IMI and the MAA.
In hospital trusts, medical illustrators are employed as healthcare scientists at levels ranging from the basic grade, to chief medical illustrator or head of department. Some heads of department may be employed on NHS administrative scales.
Currently, those with a Diploma are likely to stay at the starting grade for around three years until they have obtained a qualification in medical illustration.
As a graduate, you're more likely to enter at one level above this or, if you do start at the basic grade, you could expect to progress to the next grade within two or three years.
Promotion to the next three grades depends on the size of the medical illustration department. The work at this level would involve more technical complexity, but would not necessarily involve managing staff.
After that, promotion prospects may be limited, especially for people working in a small department, and relocation may be necessary if you wish to progress further.
Opportunities for specialisation and for promotion tend to be greater in universities and the NHS, making them attractive employers for senior-level medical illustration staff.
Private companies providing medical services and developing medical or pharmaceutical products also offer good employment opportunities. Progression will depend on the individual employer.
Many medical illustrators undertake freelance work, which usually increases with experience and contacts.
Find out how Bethany became a clinical photographer at BBC Bitesize.