Students graduating medical school often recite an oath as they cross the symbolic threshold between student and physician.
Many of these students, including students at the David Geffen School of Medicine, forgo modern alternative oaths in favor of altered versions of the Hippocratic Oath, many of which barely resemble the ancient text that invokes gods and goddesses, including Apollo.
Why exactly do words inspired by an ancient Greek physician still resonate with medical students born many lifetimes after he perished?
The Hippocratic Oath Reemerges
The Hippocratic Oath hasn’t always been popular. The oath enjoyed a renaissance in the middle of the 20th century. According to historical studies, use of a Hippocratic Oath in U.S. medical schools jumped from just 17.6% in 1928 to 74% in 1958.
Many believe renewed interest in an oath credited to the “Father of Medicine” sprung from the atrocities of human experimentation, sometimes at the hands of physicians and scientists, during World War II. Post-war reckoning piqued interest in the ethics of medicine and led to the World Medical Association’s adoption of the Declaration of Geneva in 1948.
This declaration breathed new life into the Hippocratic Oath’s tenets of patient responsibility and service to humanity, inspiring medical leaders, including Dr. Louis Lasagna and former David Geffen School of Medicine Dean Dr. Sherman Mellinkoff, to create new patient-focused versions of the old oath.
Modern Resonance in Digital Times
All the Hippocratic Oath’s iterations celebrate the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship.
Dr. Christine Thang, a 2015 graduate of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, said the oath is a reminder that a physician’s job is to “treat not just the diseases we encounter but to think of each individual patient as a whole person.”
The oath’s patient-first philosophy can be timelessly and universally applied as the specifics of medical practice evolve. As medical statisticians work to uphold HIPAA, they’re upholding Hippocratic ideals. As trainees practice high-risk surgeries using advanced simulation, they’re putting patients first.
In short, the oath’s enduring resonance doesn’t lie in its prescriptive specificity but in its timeless underlying values. As medical practices continue to shift, the legacy of the original Hippocratic Oath will surely live on.