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Developing a Health Humanities Portrait: a How-To Guide

We welcome faculty to develop their own Health Humanities Portrait and share it with fellow instructors through our repository.

The Health Humanities Portrait (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.

Steps to create a Health Humanities Portrait Heading link

Step one–choose a social theme that has major implications for a patient’s or community’s health.


The politics of housing, police violence, access to quality education, climate change and health, etc. are all examples of this.

The social theme should primarily reveal societal forces and patients’ perspectives, rather than focus exclusively on differential diagnosis, clinical issues, or a provider’s ethical dilemma.

Step two–search for and choose a first-person patient narrative or a set of complementary narratives.

This can be a long and arduous process, depending upon the availability of first-person narratives on the social theme, so give yourself time to find a first-person narrative.

First-person narratives can be in the form of an essay, memoir, podcast, blog, a poem, a YouTube video, a photograph or set of photographs, an oral history or transcripts from an interview, or other media that reflect patient authorship. Unmediated narratives are preferable.

Publicly accessible narratives are easier to use but securing use licenses for non-public material are also a possibility. Most importantly, the first-person patient narrative should reflect the social, cultural, ethical, and affective issues inherent in the patient-social theme nexus.

Step three–choose humanities scholarship

Identify specific issues about the social theme that the first-person narrative raises.

Select 2-3 scholarly treatments of those issues that help to flesh out the dynamics at stake and the consequences for health. The scholarship should delve deeper into, and provide the context for, the socio-political issues raised in the narrative. These issues are those that the HHP creator wants to feature for pedagogical purposes.

The chosen scholarship can be gathered from the literature of one humanities discipline or can be interdisciplinary. The humanities scholarship should also be used to introduce learners to the methodological approaches of that humanities discipline.

If the Health Humanities Portrait centers around one humanities disciplinary approach, the scholarly pieces should reflect that approach (e.g. history). If the faculty person wants to create a portrait using more than one disciplinary approach, s/he/they should choose scholarly pieces in the health humanities that reflect that interdisciplinarity.

Key Considerations Heading link

The materials [first-person narrative and scholarly pieces] together should form a cohesive unit

It is through the dialogue between and amongst the materials that the portrait is built. The HHP is not just the first-person narrative with some supplementary scholarship. The HHP is the collection of the narrative and scholarship together.

Teaching the portrait

When the health humanities instructor teaches the portrait to learners, the materials should be used in conversation with one another; practice caution about focusing only on the first-person narrative without engaging sufficiently with the scholarship. Once these materials are chosen, the HHP creator/educator should then create their teaching guide. The teaching guide allows the health humanities educator (or another qualified educator who understands the rigor of humanities pedagogy), to explore the pertinent issues when teaching the portrait to healthcare trainees.