Doctors traditionally take the Hippocratic Oath upon graduation from medical school. The original version is believed to have been written during the 4th century B.C. and is commonly attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates of Cos. While it has been updated over the years, its general principles have remained the same, continuing to provide the foundation of medical ethics.
The original version of the oath, as Hippocrates is believed to have written it, spells out several ethical bases of the medical profession; for example, it speaks of respecting one's instructors, using medical knowledge to help rather than harm, and safeguarding patients' privacy. Most important, it emphasizes that patients are to be treated not as cases or experimental subjects, but as human beings worthy of respect and compassion.
While the original oath is still valuable, some parts are clearly archaic. For example, the introduction invokes the Greek gods Apollo and Aesculapius. It also includes a prohibition against physicians performing surgery, as this division of labor was common at the time. Cultural and religious values have changed as well; for instance, the original oath contains a flat prohibition against abortion, while the modern attitude toward this practice is more nuanced.
For the reasons stated above, the Hippocratic Oath is usually recited in a modernized version. The most widely used text is the following:
"I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
"I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
"I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures that are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.
"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.
"I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
"I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person's family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.
"I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.
"I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.
"If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help."
In addition to the Hippocratic Oath, there are several other doctors' oaths that are used occasionally, to present the same values in various religious or political contexts. However, all these oaths share an overriding concern for the welfare of the patient and a determination that the knowledge of medicine should never be used to do harm.