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Milestone #3 A code of ethics that stands the test of time

  • “I will use treatments for the benefit of the sick to the best of my ability and judgment; I will abstain from doing harm or wronging any man by it.”
  • Hippocrates, Oath, 420-350 BC

Among all the known writings from Antiquity, the Hippocratic Oath is considered by some to be second in authority only to the Bible. Adopted as a code of behavior by physicians throughout history, the Oath continues to influence many physicians today and is still frequently cited in scholarly journals and the popular press as the code of ethics for the proper practice of medicine.

Contained in a single page of text, the Oath begins with the physician swearing, “by Apollo the physician, and Asklepius...and all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses” to uphold the Oath and its contract. In subsequent statements, the physician is bound to uphold a variety of ethical and behavioral standards, including:

  • Holding my teacher “equally dear to my parents” and being willing to “impart a knowledge of the art to my own sons”
  • “Not giving a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked”
  • “Avoiding any voluntary act of impropriety or corruption, including the seduction of women or men, whether they are free men or slaves”
  • Keeping secret “whatever I see or hear in the lives of my patients, whether in connection with my professional practice or not.”

Although some biographies suggest that Hippocrates required his apprentices to swear by an oath before he would accept them as students, the origin of the Oath as we know it today is unclear and may have been rewritten a number of times over the ages to suit the needs of different cultures. In any case, the Oath was hardly the last word by Hippocrates on ethics and the proper practice of medicine. For example, in the book Epidemics, he offers one of his best-known maxims—one that most patients today would be happy to remind their doctors of while being trundled into the operating room:

  • “Regarding diseases, make a practice of two things—to help or, at least, do no harm.”
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