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Not Whether but How: Considerations on the Ethics of Telling Patients’ Stories

Abstract: The ethics of telling stories about other people become questionable as soon as humans learn to talk. But the stakes get higher when health care professionals tell stories about those whom they serve. But for all the problems that come with such stories, I do not believe it is either practical or desirable for bioethicists to attempt to legislate an end to this storytelling. What we need instead is narrative nuance. We need to understand how to tell respectful stories in which the patients are fully acknowledged fellow participants, not one-dimensional objects of a knowing gaze. The problem is not narration itself but a particular version of narrational privilege, and getting rid of that would have benefits far beyond practices of writing case studies. In this essay, I first offer four considerations that I have found either omitted or underemphasized in discussions of the ethics of telling stories about patients. I then sketch a model of medical storytelling that might be the basis for shifting the ethical question from whether to how.

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