Does the Hippocratic Oath Promote Burnout?

Neil Chesanow


March 29, 2017

In This Article

The Catch-22 of Putting Patients First

Burnout among physicians is rampant. One-third to one-half of practicing physicians meet the criteria for burnout, and in a large study conducted by the Mayo Clinic, 53% of medical students showed signs of burnout.[1] In addition, 300 to 400 physicians commit suicide each year, which is higher than the rate in the general population.[2] Suicide rates are related to the high rates of depression seen in physicians, which might be linked to burnout.

Too much paperwork, productivity demands, reporting requirements, and the intrusion of business concerns into one's medical practice can all contribute to burnout. Some physicians contend that the seeds of burnout are sown when they raise their right hands during their white-coat ceremonies and take the Hippocratic Oath, solemnly swearing to put the needs of their patients above all else.[1]

And many contend that if physicians are putting patients' needs first, to the detriment of their own health, they are misinterpreting and misreading the oath.

What the oath actually says is, "I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing."[3] It also declares that "into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free."

The remaining three sections of the oath focus on honoring one's teachers, what to avoid when treating patients, and keeping patient information confidential.[3]

That the Hippocratic Oath doesn't actually state that patients must come first doesn't seem to matter. Putting patients above all else is often drummed into students in medical school. And that is the paradigm that their teachers and attendings tend to model. By the time the oath is taken, for many medical students, the notion has already been internalized.

"This expectation of sacrifice can extend to physicians' families, who are likewise trained to understand the interruptive priority of a medical career," note Annie Nedrow, MD, MBA, from Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, and Nicole A. Steckler, PhD, and Joseph Hardman, MD, from Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.[1]

This "interruptive priority" has governed the way many physicians and physicians-to-be live. It is this single-minded devotion to helping humanity and saving lives that sets the medical profession apart—and above—all others.

"Most physicians are first drawn to the calling, or service aspect of medicine," observe Dr Nedrow and colleagues.[1] "The ability to make a difference in a person's health is compelling and rewarding. This expectation of service is reinforced repeatedly throughout training, starting with the Hippocratic Oath. Yet early in a career, this sense of service may begin to feel more like duty, and the personal sacrifice it requires may feel more like deprivation, even victimization and martyrdom, when self-sacrifice becomes exhausting."

A Call to Revise the Hippocratic Oath

The issue with putting patients first, and with oaths—Hippocratic and otherwise—that promote that idea, are starting to surface among practicing physicians.

Last September, at the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) Congress of Delegates, one item on the agenda was a resolution to update language in the oath that members take when receiving the AAFP Degree of Fellow so that it better reflects the critical importance of work–life balance, which could help stem the ever-increasing rate of physician burnout.[4]

Specialty societies, following in the footsteps of a growing number of medical schools, are using the Hippocratic Oath as a starting point when they develop their own professional oaths.[4] At issue in the AAFP oath was its stipulation "to provide comprehensive care to my patients, placing their welfare above all else."[4]

Tennessee delegate Lee Carter, MD, from Huntingdon, who coauthored a resolution to revise the oath, had previously testified why a revision was necessary.[4]

"Patients should be above insurance companies; patients should be above the hospital administrator; patients should be above anything professional...but our personal lives are different," Dr Carter said.[4] "And the need to balance our professional life with our private life is something we all have to deal with now."

Joseph Freund, MD, from Des Moines, Iowa, who attended the Congress, shared his experience with burnout 25 years earlier, which he ascribed to his efforts to put patients first.[4] He was forced to take a 6-month leave of absence to recover.

"I put the patient above everything else and gave everything else, and there wasn't anything left of me but a shell," Dr Freund testified.[4] "I had no identity outside of being a physician. It was after taking some time off that I realized I needed to spend time on myself as well."

Leaving this dangerous phrase in the new oath will not allow us "to protect ourselves," Dr Freund continued. "I proudly trumpet how wonderful family docs are when I speak to groups and to students. But until that oath is changed, I cannot take that oath and be true to myself."

The resolution passed. The problematic phrase—"to provide comprehensive care to my patients, placing their welfare above all else"—will be changed to read, "to provide comprehensive care to my patients," and the clause requiring physicians to place "their welfare above all else" will be dropped.[4]

Do words have the power to influence people to do things against their will? When the words are part of a solemn oath, perhaps they do. For some physicians, the Hippocratic Oath embodies an ideal of ethical behavior that is impossible to meet, yet they are compelled to try, regardless of how self-destructive it is, because they sincerely vowed to do so.

"Doctors are not burned out; they are just abused," a cardiologist wrote to Medscape. "Of course you have to serve patients, but to do this, you have to serve yourself first! The Hippocratic Oath is history. We all have to know what it says. But at the same time, we must accept that the world today is quite different from the one that existed 2500 years ago, when the oath was written."


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