Exploring Human Stories of Illness

The Health Humanities Portrait Project

Health Humanities Portrait (HHP) Approach


The Health Humanities Portrait Approach is an innovative curricular intervention that enables health professions learners to examine pressing social issues that shape, and are shaped by, experiences of health and illness. This patient-centered curricular intervention emphasizes patient experiences of illness, contemporary social problems, and their mutual interaction. It assumes these experiences to be multi-dimensional and therefore harnesses different humanities disciplinary methodologies to explore that complexity. It purposefully challenges learners to examine the dialectic between the personal and the structural forces that impact the human condition.

The Approach is grounded in a set of “critical portraiture” principles that foster humanities-driven analytic skills: texture, perspective-taking, centering the patient, critical composition, and tonality.

  • Texture: Captures the texture of people’s contexts by organizing a portrait around a social theme, rather than centering it around a diagnosis.
  • Perspective-taking: Nurtures the critical analysis of the positionality of the narrator, facilitator and/or learner and how “experience” is both based upon, and produces, assumptions, attitudes and identities. Such analysis is an ongoing process of interpretation that resists assumptions.
  • Centering the Patient: Centers the patient’s voice and her experiential expertise by insisting upon a first-person narrative as the springboard for examining select phenomenon pertinent to the chosen social theme.
  • Critical Composition: Develops scoping and scaling skills by exploring the bi-directional, dialogical movement between the first-person narrative and humanities scholarship as a way to mirror the relationship between the personal and the structural.
  • Tonality: Enables learners to develop deep contextual and affective curiosity about how people’s agency and possibilities are mediated by structural conditions. Captures the patient’s nuanced feelings about themselves and the social conditions in their lives.

The Portrait Approach’s pedagogical tool is the Health Humanities Portrait (HHP) and is the mechanism to foster these analytic skills. The HHP starts with the premise that healthcare training needs to be more deliberately tied to the contextual, ethical, and affective aspects of illness experiences and that it demands a critical examination of storytelling itself. It is distinctively framed around a pressing social theme and utilizes a first-person narrative and scholarship to explore how the dimensions of the personal and the structural are mutually constituted.

The Portrait Approach understands the intellectual purview of health professions education as involving more than technical learning; it provides an alternative yet complementary framework to case-based curricula in health professions curricula by moving learners’ attention from diagnosis to social problems and from physicians to patients, caregivers as located beyond the context of the clinic.

Our website provides a description of the key elements of the HHP. It provides instructions on how to develop your own HHP, offers a virtual repository of HHPs already created and ready for teaching, and gives directions for contributing HHPs to our repository. This inventive curricular intervention was formulated by Dr. Sandy Sufian and refined through two years of faculty development workshops funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

To see a description of the NEH grant project, click here.

The website also provides biographies of the contributors to this project, a description of an additional dissemination grant, and materials for an optional writing component. Go to the Project Funding tab to read about our grants.

To inquire with further questions about the HHP Project or with queries about implementing it at your university, please email us at [email protected].

Testimonials about the Health Humanities Portrait Project

The HHP Approach was incredibly effective because it was layered with complexity, intersectionality and kept students engaged through activities and quality discussion.

Second- year medical student, December 2019

There are some more human, intangible aspects of medicine that simply can’t be lectured about or reduced to a multiple choice question that we as medical trainees need to deeply embrace, sit down with, and be challenged about. The HHP format is appropriately paced for us to reflect on some of these questions in a very active discussion and to interrogate so many more of the nonverbal, taken-for-granted intricacies of navigating a medical space.

Second-year medical student, December 2019

I think personal narratives will always strike home more than talking in the hypothetical does. Being able to see the depth at which, and the multiplicative strength with which, social forces mold the illness experience of a real, breathing human makes the issue more poignant and clear.


First-year medical student, January 2020

Please, for me and for my fellow student doctors, continue to pursue options for ways that this can be implicated into a curriculum that will define who we are, what we stand for, and how we act as physicians. It has to be a part of this journey, whether it be a pit stop, an alternative route, or a destination.

First-year medical student, January 2020

I really liked that we stepped into the shoes of someone experiencing end of life (themselves or a loved one) through poetry. I think the ambiguity involved allows us to expand our perspective into multiple different scenarios. It allows us to find unity in diversity. 

First-year medical student, February 2021

Dr. Sandra Sufian

Associate Professor and Project Director

808 S. Wood St., COMWT, Chicago, Illinois 60607
Phone: (312) 413 0113
Fax: (312) 413 2048
Email: [email protected]