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AMA J Ethics. 2017 May 1;19(5):501-507. doi: 10.1001/journalofethics.2017.19.5.imhl1-1705.

From Silence into Language: Questioning the Power of Physician Illness Narratives.

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Assistant professor in the Center for Bioethics and Humanities and the Department of Pediatrics at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, and co-directs Foundations of Reasoning in Medicine, a required course for preclinical medical students.
An associate professor in the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, and executive director of the inter-institutional Consortium for Culture and Medicine and president of the Medical Humanities and Health Studies Forum executive committee for the Modern Language Association.


Physicians' narratives of their own experiences of illness can be a kind of empathic bridge across the divide between a professional healer and a sick patient. This essay considers ways in which physicians' narratives of their own and family members' experiences of cancer shape encounters with patients and patients' experiences of illness. It analyzes ethical dimensions of physicians' narratives (such as those by Atul Gawande, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Paul Kalanithi) and of reflective writing in medical education. It also compares illness narratives written by physicians-turned-patients to those written by patients without medical training in order to explore questions of who ultimately benefits from these narratives and whether these narratives can engender greater empathy between clinicians and patients.

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