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The missing future tense in medical narrative

Abstract

Medical narrative is normally assumed to be a past tense narrative. Patients’ and students’ past tense narratives should be supplemented by future tense narratives, and in particular by what we call hypothetical narratives—narratives such as those offered by a medical student in response to the instruction “Tell me a story about when you are a doctor”. These narratives are suggested to be especially useful in clinical and educational contexts because they offer greater insight into the narrator’s hopes and expectations than past tense narratives, which can be helpful in planning management and teaching. The narrator’s ethical principles are also exposed more clearly than when using the past tense narrative. Some ethical concerns raised by analysing narratives offered by patients or students, as if they were literary narratives, are avoided by hypothetical narratives. This suggestion is based on Ricoeur’s account of the ethical importance of veracity in narrative, or “attestation of what has occurred”. The patient/doctor or student/teacher relationship is found to have an implicit concern for the narrator’s intention that makes the assumptions underlying literary analysis untenable.

  • narrative medicine
  • narrative ethics
  • patients’ narrative
  • medical students

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