Article Text

Download PDFPDF
The missing future tense in medical narrative
  1. L G Olson1,
  2. W Terry2
  1. 1School of Medical Practice and Public Health, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, UK
  2. 2Weill Medical College in Qatar, Cornell University, Doha, Qatar
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr L G Olson
 148 Chemin de la Planche Brulée, 01210 Ferney-Voltaire, France; les.olson{at}


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

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.


  • i Dasein is an idea conceived by Heidegger in Being and Time. It is derived from “da sein”, which literally means “being there”.