The Hippocratic Oath and its Role in Medical Malpractice
You should hope that everyone, from your car mechanic to surgeon, performs their duties with care, respect, and ethical integrity. While many people subscribe to personal codes to always help others and do their best, certain professions take actual oaths. One of these oaths is the Hippocratic Oath for physicians.
The Original Oath
Named after Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, the oath dates back to ancient Greece. The original Greek text swears by gods like Apollo, and includes statements like:
- “I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgement, but never with a view to injury or wrongdoing”
- “Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain for all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free”
- “Whatsoever I see or hear in the course of my profession, if it be what should not be published abroad, I will never divulge, holding such things to be holy secrets”
These are tenets that physicians still observe today. Doctors are expected to help, not harm, and always treat the patient to the best of their abilities. They should honor the doctor-patient relationship, which includes confidentiality. From ancient Greece until now, these basics of ethics and civility have remained intact.
However, the original text does contain some bits that might be controversial to certain groups today. For example, it states that the physician should never “administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so,” which applies to the current issue of euthanasia. The original text also expressly forbids abortion.
Today, there are various versions of the Hippocratic Oath. Some forbid things like euthanasia and abortion, while others do not address it. The most commonly accepted version of the Hippocratic was rewritten by Louis Lasagna of Tufts Medical School in 1964. This version hits on many points on the original text, but updates them to include modern developments and language. Some key excerpts include:
- “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”
- “Above all, I must not play at God”
There is no “punishment” for breaking the Hippocratic Oath. However, breaking away from the core points of the oath can often lead to medical malpractice. Hopefully, most physicians follow the basics of the Hippocratic Oath not out a fear of punishment or lawsuits, but because it is simply the human thing to do!
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