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The Value Of “The Oath”

By Steve Simmons, M.D.

When I graduated from the University of Tennessee’s Medical School sixteen years ago, my last act as a student was to take the Oath of Hippocrates with my classmates and 98% of the other medical students graduating in the United States that year.  This oath still resonates within me today and connects me to all physicians reaching back over 2,500 years to the time of Hippocrates.

Implicit in an oath is the understanding that the profession chosen will require more sacrifice than the average vocation, that the occupation’s rewards should be more than a paycheck, and that a paycheck would impart less value than the enrichment gained from nobly serving others.  The high standard which society holds physicians to is still accurately described by the Hippocratic Oath. Regardless of what changes seep into our profession from outside influences, doctors will always be held to the ideals written in the Hippocratic Oath.

When I was a young medical student, the hope that becoming a physician would bring value and meaning to my life was more rewarding than thoughts of job security or financial stability.  This helped propel me and my classmates through many long nights of study.  One sentiment oft-heard in my medical school, and I suspect many medical schools today, was that no one would put up with ‘this’ just for money–usually stated prior to a re-doubling of the effort to get past a particularly challenging task.  Painful physical effort often was required, such as waking at 3AM to make hospital rounds,  or spending 24-hour long shifts stealing naps and bathroom breaks, sometimes even working over 100 hours a week during demanding rotations.  Steven Miles, a physician bioethicist, wrote, “At some level, physicians recognize that a personal revelation of moral commitments is necessary to the practice of medicine.”

I would proffer that few students would endure the sacrifices necessary to graduate without understanding this point.

In Paul Starr’s 1982 book, The Social Transformation of American Medicine, he stated that in the future the goal of the health industry would not be better health, but rather the rate of return on investments. This unfortunately has come to pass.  Arguably, medicine now is controlled by CEOs and other executives in the health industry — individuals who are not expected to take an oath.  Physicians, remaining loyal to the Oath, are an unwitting weak and junior partner in today’s health care industry.  Worse, doctors are now employees, often seen as interchangeable parts with one doctor considered no different than another. Third party providers in the health care industry fail to place any value on the personal interactions between doctor and patient.  It may be better that the CEOs of health insurance companies are not required to take an oath, since many are on record, admitting loyalty to the share-holder alone with profits their first consideration.

Before the Great Depression, only 24% of the U.S. medical school graduates were given the Oath at graduation.  Does this suggest they were less ethical? I don’t think so.  I believe the increased use of the Oath demonstrates a growing awareness on the part of our educators that business has taken a controlling interest in the practice of medicine and that their graduates should be reminded that society still expects them to deliver on the noble promises of the past.  Hippocrates’ Oath helped pry medicine away from superstition and the controlling interests of Greece’s priesthood in the fifth century B.C. Hippocrates plotted a course towards science using inductive reasoning while his Oath anchored his fledgling art on moral truths unassailable even today.  I suspect he would see little difference between those profiting within the priesthood of his day and those monopolizing healthcare today.   He would find familiarity in those putting forth their difficult-to-decode rules of reimbursement, recognizing these rules as intentionally confusing, pejorative, and detrimental to patients and physicians alike while profiting those few in control. 

How would Hippocrates advise today’s students and physicians when shown how monetary realities have finally subsumed us all?  He might remind us that money was not our motivation in pursuing this career and show us how a return to the reverence for our art, embodied by the Oath, could become a modern conveyance to the ideals of the past.  By regaining our reverence for what motivated and guided us through medical school and residency we should find ample courage to do whatever is necessary.  Much is needed to wrest control of today’s broken healthcare system from those making huge profits…. and an oath can remind us why it is important. 

Until next time, I remain yours in primary care,

Steve Simmons, MD


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