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Is one narrative enough? Analytical tools should match the problems they address
  1. Nathan Hodson1,
  2. Susan Bewley2
  1. 1 Department of Health Policy and Management, Harvard University T H Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  2. 2 Department of Women and Children's Health, King's College London, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Nathan Hodson, Harvard University T H Chan School of Public Health, Boston, MA 02115, USA; n.hodson{at}


Jeff Nisker describes his personal experience of a diagnosis of advanced prostate cancer and the kindnesses he received from friendly doctors. He claims that this narrative account supports the promotion of Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) screening for asymptomatic men and impugns statisticians, mistakenly thinking that their opposition to PSA screening derives from concerns about financial cost. The account inadvertently demonstrates the danger of over-reliance on a single ethical tool for critical analysis. In the first part of this response, we describe the statistical evidence. The most reliable Cochrane meta-analyses have not shown that PSA screening saves lives overall. Moreover, the high false positive rate of PSA screening leads to overinvestigation which results in unnecessary anxiety and increased cases of unnecessary sepsis, urinary incontinence and sexual dysfunction. Then we describe how narrative ethics alone is an insufficient tool to make claims about policies, such as PSA screening, which have hidden harms. Although Nisker’s story-telling is compelling and evokes emotions, narrative ethics of this sort have an inherent bias against people who would be harmed by the counterfactual. Particular care must be taken to look for and consider those untellable stories. Ethicists who only consider narratives which are readily at hand risk harming those who are voiceless or protected by the status quo. PSA screening is the wrong tool to reduce prostate cancer deaths and narrative ethics is the wrong tool to appraise this policy. It is vital that the correct theoretical tools are applied to the medical and ethical questions under scrutiny.

  • public health ethics
  • philosophical ethics
  • primary care

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  • Twitter @nathanhodson

  • Contributors NH drafted the manuscript. SB and NH edited and rewrote the manuscript.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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