A Paper That Changed My Thinking: Are patients a myth?

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: (Published 01 February 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:i
  1. David Misselbrook
  1. general practitioner in London

    The big idea of this paper is that medical histories, as presented on ward rounds, are part of a historic oral narrative tradition.1 The paper uses the oral-formulaic theory of two classical scholars (Parry and Lord) to compare the narrative of a typical case presentation to Homer's Iliad.

    An oral formula is “a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea.” A bardic performer would use a series of formulae (often noun adjective phrases–for example, “much enduring divine Odysseus” or “the goddess grey eyed Athene”). These are then linked together by verbs or brief snatches of free text. Starting from a source story, the skilled bard would create a …

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