Doctors as Patients: An Interpretative Study of Two Literary Narratives


  • Jonatan Wistrand Department of Medical History Lund University


Medical practice could be described as a drama in which doctors and patients are two actors with very different roles to play. While doctoring has traditionally been regarded as a rational and reliable activity, patienthood has been characterised by compliance with, and confidence, in the medical system. However, when doctors become ill this dichotomisation of medical practice is challenged. The aim of this article is to examine how this challenge has been literary described. By interpreting one autobiographical work – A leg to stand on (1984) by Oliver Sacks – and one fictional – A Country Doctor (1919) by Franz Kafka – the phenomenon of the ailing physician is exemplified and explored through narrative analysis. In the fictional, as well as in the autobiographical, narrative the 'doctor as patient' is primarily presented as a paradox and a deviation from normality. After recovery, however, doctors’ illness experiences are regarded as a valuable resource in their continued medical practice.


Barilan, Michael. 2007. “The Doctor by Lucas Fildes: An Icon in Context.” J Med Humanit 28: 59-80.

Bernard Shaw, George. 2011. The doctor’s dilemma. Auckland: The floating press.

Campbell, Suzanne, Dianne Delva. 2003. “Physician do not heal thyself: Survey of personal health practices among medical residents.” Can Fam Physician 49: 1121-1127.

Charon, Rita. 2006. Narrative Medicine. Honoring the Stories of Illness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Daneault, Serge. 2008. “The wounded healer: Can this idea be of use to family physicians?” Can Fam Physician 54: 1218-1219.

Ekbom, Torsten. 2004. Den osynliga domstolen. En bok om Franz Kafka. Stockholm: Natur & Kultur.

Frank, Arthur. 1995. The Wounded Storyteller. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Fridner, Anne, et al. 2012. ”Why don’t academic physicians seek needed professional help for psychological distress?” Swiss Med Wkly 142: w13626.

Gilman, Sander. 1995. Franz Kafka. The Jewish Patient. New York: Routledge.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Anchor Books.

Hull, Andrew. 2013. “Fictional father?. Oliver Sacks and the revalidation of pathography.” Med. Humanit 39: 105-114.

Hunsaker Hawkins, Anne. 1998. Reconstructing illness. Studies in Pathography. Indiana: Purdue University Press.

Ingstad, Benedicte, Moe Christie Vigdis. 2001. “Encounters with illness: The perspective of the sick doctor.” Anthropol Med 8: 201-210.

Kafka, Franz. 1992. “A Country Doctor.” In The Transformation and Other Stories, London: Penguin Books.

Kay, Margaret, et al. 2008. ”Doctors as patients: A systematic review of doctors’ health access and the barriers they experience.” Br J Gen Pract 58: 501-508.

Klitzman, Robert. 2008. When Doctors Become Patients. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kravetz, Robert. 1987. “Bleeding ulcer.” In When Doctors get Sick, ed. Harvey Mandell, Howard Spiro. 429-440. New York: Plenum Medical Book Co.

Manson, Aaron. 2006. “A Theology of Illness: Franz Kafka’s 'A Country Doctor'.” Lit Med 24: 297-314.

McKevitt, Cristopher, Myfanwy Morgan. 1997a. “Anomalous patients: The experiences of doctors with an illness.” Sociol Health Illn 19: 644-667.

McKevitt, Cristopher, Myfanwy Morgan. 1997b. “Illness doesn’t belong to us.” J R Soc Med 90: 491-495.

Palgi, Phyllis, Joshua Dorban. 1997. “An analysis of the self of the western physician: A study on the evolution of homo hippocratus.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 21: 261-281.

Plato. 1993. Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Posen, Solomon. 2006. The Doctor in Literature: volume 2. Oxford: Radcliffe Publishing.

Potter, Paul. 1995. Hippocrates Volume VIII. Bury St Edmunds: Loeb Classical Library.

Ricoeur Paul. 1991. “Life in quest of narrative.” In: On Paul Ricoeur: Narrative and Interpretation, ed. David Wood. 20-33. London: Routledge 1991.

Sacks, Oliver. 1998. A leg to stand on. New York: Touchstone Books.




How to Cite

Wistrand, J. (2018). Doctors as Patients: An Interpretative Study of Two Literary Narratives. Ars Medica, 13(2). Retrieved from