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This chapter is from the book

Hippocrates for yesterday, today...and tomorrow

  • “Patients are anonymous... Their recovery practiced in rooms similar to cockpits...”
  • Orfanos, 2007

Although the physical form of Hippocrates disappeared from this world some 23 centuries ago, the body of his work—the collective writings and teachings for which we credit him the “Invention of Medicine”—remain alive and well in the twenty-first century. Medical students continue to cite his oath, physicians and surgeons continue to praise his anatomical and clinical insights, and many others continue to be inspired by his insights.

And yet...

To those who see little or no connection between ancient medicine and modern medicine of the twenty-first century, some would ask that you take a harder look at where we are today and where we may be heading. In a recent medical conference held on the island of Rhodes, Greece, a physician’s opening lecture reviewed the history and accomplishments of Hippocrates. He then noted that after the flowering of Greek and Roman medicine and the transfer of this knowledge to the west in the middle ages by Arab scholars, the face of medicine began to change. Over the next four centuries, from the Renaissance to the urbanization, industrialization, and molecularization of medicine in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the field of medicine shifted from an emphasis on the routine and compassionate care of individual patients to an increasing focus on technology, economics, and business-oriented administration.

“Patients have become anonymous,” Constantin Orfanos noted in his 2006 address to the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology. “Surgical interventions are procedures, to be honored as a brisk code number; emergencies and patient recoveries are practiced in rooms similar to cockpits for electronic cybernetics...”

To prevent the industrialization of medicine and its conversion into pure business, many now believe we need to look to the ancient past, to the healing tradition that arose long ago on a small island in the Aegean Sea. We might do well to revisit and reconsider the words and writings of a man whose practice of medicine was truly holistic, encompassing not only rationality and clinical observation, but ethics, compassion, and even belief in a higher force.

Hippocrates would surely not discount the extraordinary advances made in medicine over the past four centuries. Rather, he might advise that we temper our relentless progress with the same philosophy that led him to the breakthrough that made modern medicine possible. He might suggest that we look a little deeper, seek the same place that he discovered and shared with his followers—that place where the inner and outer worlds meet, where health and disease are so precariously balanced.

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