The Fascinating History of the Hippocratic Oath and Its Relevance in Today's World

Daniella Cressman
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Hippocrates was a fascinating man, and the oath honoring his name contains many complexities, particularly for modern-day practictioners.

WHO WAS HIPPOCRATES?

Hippocrates has long been hailed as the “Father of Medicine.” In fact, the views most of us hold about medicine today and consider quite normal were once extremely controversial. The Greek physician was born in 460 B.C.E. During those times, the majority of the population strongly believed that diseases occurred solely for religious reasons.

Hippocrates’ idea that certain ailments were the result of a poor diet and an unhealthy environment were severely dismissed. Tragically, the man spent a staggering twenty years in prison for maintaining such “beliefs.” Making the best of the situation, Hippocrates actually constructed many of his theories while he was behind bars.

THE MODERNIZED VERSION OF THE HIPPOCRATIC OATH

Ironically, no one is actually certain that Hippocrates himself wrote the oath. Some attribute it to one or more of his successors whom they believe took inspiration from his teachings and theories.

Regardless of who wrote it, it remains one of the cornerstones of modern medicine: It represents the first ethical approach to the art and science of healing in history. Many graduate students recite a modern version of the oath today.

A MODERNIZED VERSION OF THE 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.”

This oath is beautifully written and contains many values that are upheld vehemently by practitioners across the nation. However, there are certain passages that are extremely controversial in today’s atmosphere, such as the idea that abortions are forbidden and that one must mention God when taking it. This is understandable, considering that members of the medical community maintain various religious viewpoints and sometimes choose not to follow any religion at all.

While some argue that the Hippocratic Oath is outdated and opt for alternative pledges that they believe to be more relevant, others maintain that it is a cornerstone of medicine, and certain passages that do not translate to today’s cultural values should be viewed metaphorically: These practitioners also tend to believe that taking the Hippocratic Oath feels far more authentic than reciting alternative pledges that are thought to be better suited to the 21st century.

WHO TAKES THE HIPPOCRATIC OATH?

Doctors have taken the Hippocratic Oath throughout history. Many of them still do today, but it is often optional to do so. Nurses and other members of the medical community do not take this oath, but they do make promises that are often similar to it in nature during their graduation ceremonies. The Florence Nightingale Pledge is common for these individuals.

In the past, the vast majority of physicians took the Hippocratic Oath. These days, some younger practitioners are opting out of it.

According to these statistics, older physicians find more value in this oath than their younger counterparts. Many say that this is so because they find it extremely challenging to put patients first, which many believe leads to extreme burnout. This may come across as a callous at first, but, when one learns of the many medical needs that compete for these physicians’ attention, their mindset becomes far more understandable.

Another reason younger doctors may be hesitant to take the Hippocratic Oath is that it once stated that abortions were not allowed and advised members of the medical community to “practice according to divine law.” Some may feel that this set of values does not align with their core beliefs, especially in a society that is becoming increasingly progressive when it comes to issues such as abortions, LGBTQ+ rights, and even “divine law.” Perhaps some people do not feel comfortable taking such a vow in today’s climate if they are atheists or agnostics.

Nonetheless, patient privacy is still incredibly relevant today: It is of the utmost importance that physicians do not share confidential matters with those around them and compromise their patients’ trust. That being said, most medical students take some form of oath even though this is usually optional. There are only around 19% who choose not to take any pledge at all.

HOW DOES THE HIPPOCRATIC OATH APPLY TO CLINICAL RESEARCH TODAY?

There are two cornerstones of the Hippocratic Oath that are essential to the practice of medicine today: Protecting patients from social harm and injustice and benefiting the ill.

There is an ongoing and heated debate in the medical community about whether the Hippocratic Oath is still relevant today: Some state that its values are antiquated and opt for alternative pledges that align more strongly with their values: It seems odd to swear to Greek deities in this day and age, but some find comfort and tradition within the Hippocratic Oath’s words. Many members of the medical community have proposed replacing the Greek gods with Whomever the medical practitioner taking the oath believes in, whether that’s God, Allah, the Dharma, Krishna, or another Higher Power. Some even say that that particular section can be omitted completely if the one who is taking it is not religious.

Others claim that the Hippocratic Oath is more authentic, despite the language contained within it, and great lessons can still be taken from it. One major issue is that many believe the political nature of the Hippocratic Oath is divisive, and they strive to serve a broad range of patients, regardless of their viewpoints.

Bioethicist Steven Miles, M.D.,weighed in on the discussion with some meaningful words. He thinks it’s very important for the Hippocratic Oath to refer to the Greek gods. By doing so, it reminds physicians to accept human mortality, practice gentleness with their patients, and dedicate themselves fully to the path of healing.

There is one particularly controversial phrase contained within the Hippocratic Oath:

“I will not use the knife, even upon those suffering from stones, but I will leave this to those who are trained in this craft.”

When viewed literally, these words seem very strange to swear by, especially if one is going to become a surgeon. However, many members of the medical community view them in a purely metaphorical sense: If a physician is inexperienced in a certain procedure, he should ask for help from people who are experts in that particular practice. This approach makes perfect sense for both the patient and the physician.

While many of the words and phrases in the Hippocratic Oath are controversial and outdated in today’s progressive atmosphere, the brilliant mind of Hippocrates remains respected by many in the medical community, and he will always be hailed as the Father of Medicine. One may not agree with many of the details contained within the Hippocratic Oath, but many of the fundamental values within it are of the utmost importance to the medical community today.

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