Picture Perfect: The Role of Medical Illustrators in Healthcare Communication

The Role of Medical Illustrators in Healthcare Communication

„What do you do for a living?”

I’m a medical illustrator.

„A medical what?”

A medical illustrator.

“So, an illustrator?”

No, a medical illustrator.

… Cue puzzled expression.

The combination of ‚medical‘ and ‚illustrator‘ in one job description often raises more questions than it answers. And I can empathize; I’ve had my fair share of moments grappling with online sign-up sheets, pondering over whether to choose ‚medical,‘ ‚art,‘ or ‚other‘ for what feels like an awkwardly long minute.

The truth is, you can’t separate the medical from the illustrator in medical illustrator; they are intricately intertwined and equally vital.

Now, what is a Medical Illustrator?

Picture this: a medical student, wide-eyed and eager, embarking on their educational journey. However, already slightly discouraged by the (digital) mountains of complex reading material, before even having started. But with the help of illustrations the intricacies of the human body unfold before them, making learning an adventure rather than a daunting task.

Imagine a patient, anxious and uncertain, facing a complex medical procedure. The graphics become their roadmap to understand the process laid out before them. Visuals are easing their apprehension, granting them a sense of control.

Now, picture a seasoned physician, dedicated to healing but at times burdened with the arrival of yet another guideline adaptation, staying up to date, on top of their already substantial workload. An illustrated overview can offer a valuable solution, providing a clear and concise update at a glance.

In each of these, and many, many, more cases, the illustrations which come to the rescue aren’t mere embellishments; they’re the unsung heroes of medical education and communication. They have the power to engage, to summarize, and to simplify, rendering complex concepts approachable.

They are the bridge between the complexities of science and the understanding of humanity. And who builds these bridges? Individuals who not “only” utilize artistic talent and skill but also possess a commendable depth of medical knowledge. You guessed it – Medical illustrators.

We are trained in identifying knowledge gaps, and fill them in, whether these gaps may be in our own knowledge or in the provided materials. Our expertise allows us to efficiently gather and make use of the necessary information to fill this gap.

Medical Illustration today

The origins of medical illustrations trace back to 4 BC, but since then it has undergone rapid evolution, embracing new technologies and our ever changing media consumption habits. Today, medical illustrators utilize various media to convey anatomical and scientific knowledge.

This includes “traditional” illustrations, now extending beyond print to online platforms, apps, presentations, and videos. The surge of animation, video and AI has further enriched science communication, prompting many medical illustrators to expand their skillset into 2D and 3D animation, and even delving into the realms of Virtual and Augmented Reality.

You would be surprised by how incredibly diverse medical illustrators’ job descriptions can be. And on top of that, these roles can be found in a wide array of settings, from hospitals and government projects to the pharmaceutical industry, the medical-legal field, online learning platforms, journals, magazines or publishers. When working freelance, as many medical illustrators do, the range of available projects can be mind-blowing.

The Workflow

Now that you know what a medical illustrator creates, let’s have a look at the process behind it. Sticking to a well-defined workflow and integrating essential feedback loops is what allows the types of projects to be as divers as I just mentioned. What does this workflow look like?

1. Client Briefing

A good briefing at the start of each project is key, since its crucial to not only understand the client and their values, but also the target audience and their prior knowledge. You can probably imagine that educating specialised physicians on a new surgery technique requires a different approach than patient-education for the exact same surgery.

Including instruments, advanced surgery techniques and trouble-shooting would be perfect for physicians. Whereas for patient education one would focus more on drawing a general, simplified overview, leaving out those scary-looking instruments.

Examples of different illustration styles and approaches for surgical procedures

2. Research

After the briefing it is time for the medical illustrator to start the research phase, an in-depth study of the subject matter. This involves consultations with medical experts, extensive literature reviews, and a deep dive into relevant research materials. It’s important for the illustrator to fully understand the subject matter they’re illustrating. Thorough scientific and medical research is the foundation of any medical illustration.

3. Concept Sketches

Next comes the conceptualization phase, where initial ideas are sketched out. This phase we focus on storytelling, referring back to the briefing. The concept sketch takes into account what we need to convey, to whom, and whether the concept sketches deliver this information in the best possible way.

4. From Concept to Clarity

The actual drawing process is often the less laborious part of creating a medical illustration, compared to lengthy research and feedback loops with the client. This is the phase where the illustration truly comes to life, with each stroke and detail carefully crafted to convey the intended message.

In this phase you need to find the balance between creativity and scientific accuracy, capturing the essence of the subject matter, while maintaining anatomical precision. It’s crucial to determine not only what we need to include, but also what we can omit. While it’s tempting to showcase our skill by meticulously rendering every observable detail, it is usually not the best approach.

And let’s be honest, if photographic realism is your goal, why not use a photo?

A series of schematic illustrations depicting surgical steps of nerve preservation during a prostatectomy

So why not take a photo instead?

There are many scenarios where a medical illustration has advantages over a photograph. Of course, as with anything, it depends on the specific objective. Let’s have a look at some of the advantages with a few examples to make this more tangible.

1. Information Filtering

The largest advantage lies in the fact that while a photograph depicts the scene as it is, in all its bloody glory, illustrations allow for selective filtering of information. This process clarifies the subject by eliminating unnecessary details.

Schematic illustrations differentiating the FIGO stages of uterine cervical cancer

2. Perspective Combination

Another significant advantage lies in the ability to combine perspectives of structures impossible to observe or capture through photography or scanning. For instance, consider a cross-sectional view of tissue in a living and breathing human being, outside a surgical context.

A still of an illustrated animation depicting multiple steps of the development of hyperglycemia during pregnancy

3. Temporal Dimension

Illustrations hold the unique ability to depict multiple moments in time within a single image, something that scans or photographs can’t achieve. This time aspect gives a complete look at a process, showing the dynamic steps that are common in the medical field.

An overview of the steps in which retrograde menstruation can cause endometrial tissue growth in the abdomen. Retrograde menstruation is one of the theories on the pathogenesis of endometriosis

Proposals and Conceptualisation

Moreover, medical illustrations prove quite useful in academic proposals. Clearly depicting concepts that may not yet exist or remain uncertain in their existence, such as intricate biochemical mechanisms. Illustrations often serve as visual blueprints, helping to communicate the concepts of groundbreaking ideas.


In conclusion, medical illustrators are indispensable visual storytellers in healthcare communication, merging artistic skill with profound medical knowledge. We simplify complex medical concepts, aiding students, guiding patients, and updating physicians. As technology evolves, so does our versatility. Following a well-defined workflow, from client briefing to the final drawing process, our profession works on bridging the gap between science and societal understanding.

So, the next time you encounter a medical illustrator, remember:

Firstly, we are the visual storytellers shaping the future of healthcare communication.

And secondly, you better avoid challenging us in a game of ‘Pictionary’. Many have tried it. But it never ends well. 🫀

Roberta Müller is a passionate communicator with a background in Biology. She strives to break down academic barriers by creating clear and visually engaging illustrations. She is the lead medical illustrator at Medudy, a dynamic company dedicated to making medical education more accessible.

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