THIS I BELIEVE
I believe in the Hippocratic Oath.
Years ago, wearing a cap and gown, I recited the Hippocratic Oath at my medical school graduation. It felt like a solemn occasion, an initiation, and the start of a career. It was all of these. Taking the Hippocratic Oath isn’t a formality before moving on to internship and training. It isn’t just a ceremonial tradition. It is a vital and meaningful pledge to uphold the highest standards of the medical profession. In this day and age, I think we need it more than ever.
How can an oath, written over two thousand years ago in ancient Greece, resonate with me: an emergency physician in 2007? I’ve treated everything from sprained ankles to heart attacks. I’ve had patients who are drunk, hostile, or psychotic. I’ve had patients on the brink of death. I’ve had patients abused by themselves, their families, or society. There are moments when it all seems overwhelming.
The oath still serves me well in times of ethical crisis or doubt. The physician vows, for example, to work for the benefit of the patient, avoid giving a deadly drug, and to maintain confidentiality. Those ethical principles remain as important now as they were 2500 years ago. The science and technology has dramatically changed, but the basic premise of the doctor-patient relationship has not. Patients still look to their doctor to work in their best interests, and not divulge their personal information. In this computer and internet age, that’s difficult, but it’s still the goal.
There are many outdated concepts in the oath. For example, the physician vows not to operate on a kidney stone. You have to remember the oath was written in a time when there wasn’t much science or effective treatment.
But despite the anachronisms, I’ll take the oath. It has survived the test of time, and the test of social, political, and ethical upheavals. There are endless pressures and tensions in medical practice today. We still haven’t settled on the best health care system, or issues like universal coverage or end of life care. Doctors should have some guideposts and traditions to keep alive their professional and moral spirits.
I believe the Hippocratic Oath centers doctors on the essential reason we do what we do: to benefit the patient. Everything else is secondary.
When I took the Hippocratic Oath, I had no idea of the challenges that lay ahead. The oath initiated me into a demanding, but ultimately rewarding profession. I took that oath on my first day as a doctor, and I try to live up to my pledge each day. I believe in the Hippocratic Oath, and I believe in its promise. It has served me well throughout my days and nights as a doctor. The prognosis for the Hippocratic Oath is good: it is alive and well. This I believe.
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