Oaths for Physicians -- Necessary Protection or Elaborate Hoax?

Erich H. Loewy, MD

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In This Article

Abstract

The ritual of taking an oath upon graduating from medical school is, with a few exceptions, a routine requirement for graduation. Albeit that many students believe that they have taken the Hippocratic Oath, this is virtually never the case. Very often students themselves write many of these oaths, and taking such an oath impresses the student as well as the public, who are potential patients. It sketches the ethically proper way for physicians to treat their patients. Such an oath is meaningful only when it is not coerced but in reality sketches the physicians' obligations toward patients, society, and each other. The question and problem of a coerced oath are discussed. It is concluded that students when first entering medical school know that such an oath will be a requirement for graduation, and because much of the time the persons taking the oath are writing it, I believe that coercion is not a factor. It is an unfortunate fact that throughout the nation students who are known to behave in ethically inappropriate ways are nevertheless allowed to graduate. Possible ways of addressing this troubling situation are discussed. Equally troublesome is the fact that we who administer the oath as well as the students who swear to it are aware that the system of medical care makes it extremely difficult and at times impossible to truly adhere to the full implications of this oath. According to the oath, physicians (in virtually all formulations) swear that social standing (and by implication economic factors) will not change the way in which patients are treated. This becomes impossible when uninsured patients are sent away at the front desk long before the physician can interact with them. Furthermore, the current fact that physicians often are confronted with not doing what they consider a necessary test (or prescribe what they think would be the best medication) raises the problem of either lying or suggesting to the patient that he/she do so -- a fact that in the long run cannot help but damage the physician's veracity and the trust which patients put in their physicians. That virtually all codes of the American Medical Association (AMA) as well as the various specialties insist that physicians work toward universal access is stressed.

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