Improving representation in medical illustrations

After Chidiebere Ibe’s illustration of a Black foetus in a womb went viral, Johnson & Johnson and Deloitte Digital have launched an initiative to build a more diverse library of anatomical drawings

Towards the end of 2021, medical student Chidiebere Ibe shared an illustration on social media that went viral. It was an anatomical drawing he had made of a foetus in a womb. There was nothing especially remarkable about it – other than, for once, the figures shown in the pictures weren’t white.

Ibe’s image of a Black foetus grabbed headlines in the US in particular. However, the overwhelming tendency to show medical conditions, diseases, and bodily processes on white people isn’t limited to the global north. “The lack of representation in medical imagery has become a global issue rather than a regional one,” Ibe explains. “This is because medical textbooks are utilised worldwide, medical students receive training on a global scale, and doctors interact with patients from diverse backgrounds across the globe. Despite this global reach, medical illustrations of people of colour have not been universally accessible.” Research shows that less than 5% of medical illustrations portray people of colour.

What began as a social media phenomenon led to interviews with leading news titles and a TED talk, and Ibe’s illustration was used by Congresswoman Frederica Wilson in a speech at the House of Representatives. His newest title is chief medical illustrator for Illustrate Change, an initiative architected by Johnson & Johnson and Deloitte Digital that seeks to improve representation in medical illustrations. The current set of 20 illustrations shows how conditions and diseases like psoriasis, dengue fever, lupus, anaemia, and breast cancer present in people of colour.