A Customizable Medical Oath
Today there are various medical oaths that exist, including the Modern Physician’s Oath written by Dr. Louis Lasagna in 1964, and the Oath of Geneva written in 1948. However, the most ancient of which is the Hippocratic Oath, which is believed to have been written circa 400 BCE, approximately one century after Hippocrates’ death.
While the act of oath-taking has “become nearly universal” at medical schools within the United States, difficulties arise in the use of the Hippocratic Oath in medical schools today . Most oaths are referred to as “Hippocratic” yet, the original Hippocratic Oath is hardly in use anymore. Various issues taken with the Hippocratic Oath include the fact that it swears to mythical gods and its stance against euthanasia and abortion. Researchers have found that approximately 11% of schools in the United States and Canada continue to use the Hippocratic Oath, while 33% use the Modern Oath . Many medical students, like the Class of 2016 at the University of Texas’ Dell Medical School, now opt to writing their own personal oath, as opposed to using one of the various oaths that exist today.
Taking a medical oath before graduating medical school was not always required of students. Rather, “oath-taking in recent decades has risen to near uniformity, with just 24% of medical schools in the United States administering the oath in 1928 to nearly 100% today” . However, doctors continue to feel that the Hippocratic Oath does not resonate with their beliefs and values due to its old age, arguing that the world and today’s concerns with regards to healthcare has drastically changed since 400 BCE. A Medscape poll shows that approximately 40% of physicians under the age of 34 believe that the Hippocratic Oath should be revised, but 43% believe the oath should not be changed . Around 16% believe that the practice of oath-taking isn’t necessary to begin with .
The act of writing a customized medical oath has risen, with almost half of medical school graduations requiring that students take an oath personally written by their school, as opposed to only 9% of medical school graduations in 1982. Dr. Nancy Angoff, Dean of Student Affairs at Yale Medical School, speaks of how students personally writing their own oath came about at Yale, almost twenty years ago. She states that students took issue with the fact that Yale’s medical oath was “ impersonal, cold, and too pat,” but taking the Hippocratic Oath was not a viable option since students “didn’t want to promise things they couldn’t deliver on” . As a result, students were given the opportunity to write an oath together, and this tradition has continued since. Dr. Karri Weisenthal, a graduate of the Class of 2018, has mentioned that “the writing process forces you to step back and think about what it means to be a physician” .
There are various stances on medical oath-taking, such as questioning whether it’s necessary or which oath is most appropriate for today’s world and the physicians practicing in it. However, the act of writing one’s own oath shifts the experience from being a tradition upheld by medical schools where students are required to merely recite the words of an oath, to an active process that allows medical students to reflect on their ideals as future physicians.
Melissa Bailey, “So long, Hippocrates. Medical students choose their own oaths,” STATNews, September 21, 2016.
Peter Tyson, “The Hippocratic Oath Today,” PBS, March 27, 2001.
Marcia Frellick, “Youngest, Oldest Physicians Diverge on Hippocratic Oath,” Medscape, June 2, 2017.
Stacy Weiner, “The solemn truth about medical oaths,” AAMC, July 10, 2018.