After four years of hard work, graduating students at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA stand together and recite the Hippocratic Oath before officially beginning their careers as physicians. The oath is considered a mainstay of the ethics and values that guide Western medicine. But the content of the oath has changed in the more than 2,500 years since Hippocrates first wrote it. A modern Hippocratic Oath takes much of the same values as the original but has adapted over time to meet the needs of modern medical practice and shifts in societal values.
Modernizing the Hippocratic Oath
Written in the 5th century B.C., the Hippocratic Oath is one of the oldest documents in history. At its writing, it was intended to be a binding covenant, but today's version is a promise to uphold the art of medicine, always acting in the patient's best interest.
In today's graduation ceremonies, students typically recite some variation of one of three updated versions of the oath:
At the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the oath students recite has undergone changes since 1955. The latest revision was in 2013, when students recited a version of the oath adapted by the late Dean Emeritus Sherman Mellinkoff.
How the oath applies today
Much of the oath has been changed from its original form to suit the shifts in medical practice and society over centuries. For example, the original oath swears by Apollo and other Greek gods of medicine. Today's oaths simply begin with a promise to uphold the following principles or to swear "by whatever each of us holds most sacred." The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons lists many oaths that have been used.
Despite how much time has passed, the core values of the oath have held throughout the different iterations. While modern versions may vary slightly, all versions promise to act in the best interest of the patient and to protect patient privacy.
Protecting patient privacy was a key component of the original oath, swearing to keep secret anything one may see or hear in the course of treatment. Most modernized versions of the Hippocratic Oath still promise to keep the secrets of patients. Even in a digital world, where it's easy to access and share information, this value has been a mainstay of physician practice and carries into much of the policies seen today.
In keeping with the original, many oaths also promise to work together with other physician specialists and to aim for prevention, keeping people well in addition to healing the sick. Modern Hippocratic Oaths also celebrate and respect the diversity of the current society.
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."
By Patricia Chaney
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.