Service → Product: Medical Illustration in Tech

(Part One)

In July 2016, I was invited to give a presentation on the role of medical illustration in health tech at the annual Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI) conference in Atlanta, Georgia. This 2-part story is a summary of the talk— intended for the AMI membership in the health tech space, and also potentially relevant for those rebranding themselves using transferrable skills fit for digital product design.


The following terms are simplified and defined below for clarity:

  • Service: selling expertise (e.g., a studio produces an app for a client)
  • Product: selling tangible goods (e.g., a company sells an app to consumers)
  • Medical illustration: inclusive of traditional illustration, biomedical communications, visualization, animation, etc.
  • Tech: tech start-ups, specifically digital health


This story does not endorse or recommend any products or services discussed here. They are shown as examples, since I have spoken with at least one team member at length for each company, and thus have a better understanding of their respective products.


At every annual AMI meeting, attendees enjoy learning about and experiencing the latest visualization and interactive technology, from 3D augmented reality to nano bio-printing—technology that pushes the boundary of what we can do as medical illustrators.

And as medical illustrators, how do we add more value to such technological advances, to create more meaningful and life-changing impact? To turn interactive media projects into digital products? How do we bring our expertise from a service-oriented, client-based business model to help companies create lasting products?

How bad UX killed Jenny

One of the reasons I decided to give the talk was this story about Jenny, shared on Medium 2 years ago by Jonathan Shariat. “Jenny” was a young cancer patient who spent 4 years in the hospital and was eventually discharged. Unfortunately, she relapsed, and went back to the hospital for a very strong chemotherapy—so toxic that Jenny required IV hydration before and after each treatment for 3 days. Three experienced oncology nurses were taking care of Jenny. Overwhelmed with so many different orders and charts in their “charting” software, the nurses completely missed the critical note for hydration.

Sample screen shot from Jonathan Shariat’s article
Jenny had died of toxicity and dehydration. All because her very seasoned nurses were preoccupied trying to figure out this interface.
Jonathan Shariat

The story occured several years ago, yet, despite the hundreds of EHR (Electronic Health Record) systems out there today, none of them is perfect. In fact, some of my friends at hospitals and clinics still deal with such screens to this day. This status quo of design is not limited to EHRs; the same bad user experience (UX) happens throughout the entire healthcare industry, from navigating the health ecosystem to finding out simple medical costs.

The problem: Healthcare needs designers

I polled an audience of about 200 AMI members—creative professionals working in the medical field—to see how many of us also designed at work. A dozen hands went up, some reluctantly. This is not surprising, given the nature of our work.

Across the web, articles calling for designers to join healthcare are abound:

The solution: Medical illustrators

I propose that one solution to this problem is medical illustrators. Traditionally, medical illustration is a service-oriented business: we craft and deliver compelling visual media to our clients and targeted audience. Before we continue to see how medical illustrators can answer the call for healthcare designers, let’s take a look at where medical illustration currently is as a product.

Where does medical illustration stand today in a product-oriented company?


Previous 22otters website. The current site only displays an announcement for the acquisition.

22otters is a leading-edge patient-engagment and virtual care-management solutions company. The company raised a total of $6M as of 2014, based on public data, and has just been acquired a couple of weeks ago.

It is a small start-up company that has a medical illustrator on the team. Along with voice guidance and animation, medical illustration clearly plays an essential role in the product.

Medical illustration used in 22otters app. © 22otters

While 22otters utilizes simplified 2D illustrations, offers a completely 3D patient education platform. The company started last year and has raised close to $500K to date.

The team has professionally trained medical illustrators and animators. They offer a library of interactive patient education tours, immersing the viewer inside a virtual 3D body to learn about their conditions and treatments. Platforms range from desktop, to mobile app, to VR headsets.


Going beyond patient education

22otters and are two examples of medical illustration in digital products. What about digital health companies that don’t seemingly have medical illustration?


Counsyl is a health technology company that offers DNA screening for families for more than 100 disorders.

Navigating to any of these diseases on the Counsyl website brings you to a very lengthy and sometimes overwhelmingly informative page full of text. No illustration or visualization of any kind.

Counsyl provides genetic counseling. Even with this option, I argue that illustrations can not only help distill complex information for patients, but also increase user recruitment and engagement. More on that later in part 2 of this story.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Digital health is exploding, and there’s no sign of slowing down, in contrast to the rest of tech. Rock Health, the first venture fund dedicated to digital health, has a diverse portfolio full of promising and disruptive health tech companies. These companies all need designers.

But not illustrators, let alone medical illustrators.

Then, how do we take advantage of these opportunities?

A personal journey in rebranding

To answer that question, I’d like to share with you what brought me to this point. A few months after graduation from my master’s program in Biomedical Communications (BMC), I went to my first hack-a-thon in San Francisco:

I didn’t consider myself a designer at this point: I didn’t go to school to become one. Using what I learned from BMC, however, I was able to contribute as a designer for the team with other computer science students, and we won some neat awards from the event sponsors.

I realized I could be a designer.

I started diving deeper into learning more about design in tech. Intimidation became inspiration.

A year ago, I decided to pack up and leave the Institute for Neuroimaging at USC, not because of the backwards brain, but because I wanted to try my luck in Silicon Valley as a designer.

After 5 months of applying to almost 50 health tech startup jobs in the valley, and interviewing with a handful of companies, I was able to learn a great deal in the process.

I rebranded myself, telling my story under a different light.

I eventually found the perfect fit with Vave Health, a currently stealth health tech company, in December 2015. Everyday, we are proud to be spending our time on something that one day will actually save lives (join us). I can’t wait to share with you what we have been working on in the near future.

What did I learn in that 5 months of job searching? How did I gain the confidence to announce that I am a designer when I went to school to be a medical illustrator?

Head over to Part 2:

Thank you for reading

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