Nigerian Medical Student and Illustrator Takes on Diversity in Medical Illustrations

Credit: Getty Images
Medical illustrator and Nigerian medical student Chidiebere Ibe discussed the global need for diversity in medical illustrations in a panel hosted by ConcentricLife.

In 2021, a medical illustration of a Black fetus went viral. The illustrator, Chidiebere Ibe, created the piece after recognizing an absence of medical illustrations representing people of color.

Ibe became a self-taught medical illustrator after searching the internet for reference images and finding that the vast majority of illustrations did not represent people of color. This gap in diversity was particularly glaring among Black individuals.

In a recent panel hosted by ConcentricLife, Ibe discussed his personal work, as well as the global need for diversity and inclusivity within medical illustrations.

Since the image of the Black fetus was published, the impact of Ibe’s artwork on both clinicians and patients alike has been striking. As the image gained more traction online, many commented that it was the first time they saw themselves represented in a medical illustration. Ibe explained that this reaction is precisely why he creates these images: so patients around the world, especially those who identify as Black, can feel seen.     

How can clinicians be expected to recognize and diagnose diseases presenting on Black skin, in women, and other minority groups when their only point of reference is White male patients? 

Among his many roles, Ibe is Creative Director and Chief Medical Illustrator for the Journal of Global Neurosurgery and medical illustrator for the International Center for Genetic Diseases at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, MA. In addition to his work as a medical illustrator, Ibe is a student at Copperbelt University School of Medicine in Ndola, Zambia, where he is training to become a pediatric neurosurgeon.     

When asked about his approach to illustration, Ibe noted that he begins with thorough research to ensure the condition or disease state being portrayed is prevalent among people of color and is accurately rendered. This research also informs the type of model he chooses to represent the condition or disease state (eg, female patient, higher body mass, type of physicality, etc).

After addressing the anatomical facets of an illustration, he focuses on telling patients’ stories through his art. Ibe often seeks out patients experiencing the diseases and conditions he is representing and attaches their stories to his illustrations. He hopes to add emotion and a sort of poetry to every piece he creates, so those who view his art can connect to it on a deeper level.

The majority of current medical illustrations are only representative of White, male bodies, stressed Ibe. He noted that during his medical training in Zambia, despite nearly all of the students in his class being Black, textbook illustrations of disease presentation are shown on White skin. Even the mannequins used during hands-on education are representative of White bodies.

The absence of images representing Black skin is particularly problematic for recognition of dermatologic symptoms and conditions. Rashes presenting with patterns of redness may not be visible on Black skin; diagnoses of Lyme disease may be delayed among Black patients if the characteristic bull’s-eye rash is not obviously present. These missed signs can have life-altering consequences, which begs the question: How can clinicians be expected to recognize and diagnose diseases presenting on Black skin, in women, or other minority groups when their only point of reference is White male patients?  

In an attempt to counter this lack of training, Ibe has started a program at his medical school that exposes fellow students to his illustrations of disease presentation on Black patients. His current project, Illustrate Change, includes a growing image library that features medical illustrations of people of color. The library currently contains about 25 images, including depictions of atopic dermatitis, lupus, and inflammatory breast cancer, among other diagnoses. Access to the image library is entirely free for clinicians, students, and patients. Ibe hopes that making these images widely available will increase awareness of the need for diversity in medical illustrations.

Despite the continuing predominance of medical illustrations that do not represent individuals of color, Ibe remains hopeful for the future. He encourages young people to be vocal about addressing change, while acknowledging that it won’t be an easy process. Among his many goals, Ibe would like to open an academy in Africa to train young people in the art of medical illustration. It is his hope that the medical system will soon become more inclusive, with illustrators like himself at the forefront of creating global change and improving overall health outcomes for people of color.  

This article originally appeared on Rheumatology Advisor


Ibe C. Beyond the skin: why representation matters in medicine. ConcentricLife Speaker Series; August 2, 2023; Virtual.