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Hippocratic oath

Papyrus fragment of the Hippocratic oath, 200s CE.

Papyrus fragment of the Hippocratic oath, 200s CE.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

The Hippocratic oath is a long-standing tradition in medicine. Named after the Greek physician Hippocrates, the written oath was intended to act as a guideline for those entering the medical profession. Over the centuries, the exact wording has been modified and adapted, but the essence of the oath has remained the same. Doctors should respect those who have passed down medical knowledge and in turn pass their knowledge to the next generation. They should also respect the patients they are treating and ensure that they treat them to the best of their ability.

Although the oath carries his name and is believed to date from the fourth century BCE, medical historians have cast doubt on whether Hippocrates was the actual author. They believe some of the practices referred to in the original oath contradict elements of Hippocratic teaching. Most likely, the original oath had a number of authors.

Although most medical schools no longer require new doctors to swear allegiance to a single oath, the term retains its broad ethical meaning in the medical community. Should a doctor stray from the expectations of the profession, for example by deliberately harming a patient, he or she may well be accused, by the media at least, of ‘breaking the Hippocratic oath’.