The Hippocratic Oath

March 1, 2014

Philosopher and famous Greek physician, Hippocrates, is well-known as the father of the Hippocratic Oath, whose origins date back to the fifth century BC and which nearly all modern-day practicing physicians take as a promise to best serve their patients.  But what is the Hippocratic Oath, its meaning, and what conduct does it instill in physicians? Is it legally binding?  Is it relic from a far bygone era, or the invaluable moral guide still relevant today? Consider these factors.

History of the Oath

Though it is universally accepted that the Hippocratic Oath is a product of the wisdom of the father of medicine Hippocrates, the oath itself did not actually emerge until a century after his death. The authorship of the actual classical oath is not known, but it has been revised throughout the centuries, most recently in the 1960s.  Revisions to the oath reflect the changing moral values of societies and the standards that we wish our doctors to practice and live by.  In 1928, only 24% of physicians took the Hippocratic Oath, while today it is nearly ubiquitous.

Complexities Today – Changing Society, Changing Morals

The moral implications of the historic wording of the Hippocratic Oath are evolving as our global society evolves.  A growing number of physicians question the ability of the oath to address the realities of a medical world that has witnessed tremendous change in scientific, economic, political and social landscapes. As a physician-in-training, you need to consider how the Hippocratic Oath applies to medical dilemmas not relevant or present in the time of Hippocrates, such as abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and genetic testing.  Additionally, a number of doctors are questioning its validity in the age of medical specialization.  Should a dermatologist take the same oath as a cardiologist?  Relatedly, with the advent of universal health care and the merging of government and health-care organizations, how can a single physician maintain the privacy tenet of the oath?

Finally, a growing number of physicians are seeing even greater Caring for new borns in the neonatal department problem with the ambiguities that govern the oath. The classical oath makes no mention of medical experimentation, team care, or a physician’s legal responsibilities. While the Hippocratic Oath is a living, evolving document, you may wonder whether it can evolve fast enough to address the medical issues of our modern times.

In The End

Physicians will continue to take the Hippocratic Oath.  They will continue to abide by the oath’s core principles.  The traditions and history inherent within the taking of the oath connect current medical professionals with those from the past and those of the future.  When you take the oath, you bind yourself to a long tradition of patient care and ethical practice. As a practicing physician, it is your responsibility to apply the words of the oath to the unique situations you find yourself in within a medical setting.  The wisdom of the ancients is still relevant; they could not predict in the fifth century the complex medical dilemmas that modern societies would be dealing with. So use the Hippocratic Oath as your guide with a knowledge of its limitations and an understanding of its core guiding principles on your practice.

Addendum: Full Text of the Modern Hippocratic Oath

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.

I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.

I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if

I am to care adequately for the sick.

I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help. — Post by Madelaine Kingsbury.