Excuse Me, Doctor, What Exactly Do You Profess?

The late Edmund Pellegrino, M.D., revered medical educator, ethicist, and physician, often made the point that a professional professes something. Merriam-Webster  confirms that the etymology of the word, profession, includes the Latin for “public declaration.”

The Hippocratic Oath, probably penned by members of the Pythagorean sect, according to Ludwig Edelstein (see Ancient Medicine: Selected Papers of Ludwig Edelstein. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), has for centuries been accepted as the gold standard for the practice of medicine. Nigel M. deS. Cameron (The New Medicine: Life and Death After Hippocrates. Chicago: Bioethics Press, 2001)
 explicates the Hippocratic Oath as containing four parts:

1.   Covenant with Apollo and others

2.   Duties to teacher

                            Regard teacher as equal to parent

                            Treat him as a partner in livelihood

                            Share money with him when needed

                            Consider his children as siblings

                            Teach medicine to own children, children of teacher, and pupils who take the oath

3.  Duties to patients

                            Use treatment to help the sick, never to injure or wrong them

                            Give no poison to anyone though asked to do so, nor suggest such a plan

                            Give no pessary to cause abortion

                            In purity and in holiness to guard the practitioner’s life and art

                            Use no knife on “sufferers from stone,” but allow others trained to do so

                            Enter houses to help the sick, not to participate in wrong doing or harm

                            Keep oneself from fornication with woman or man, slave or free

                            Not to divulge, but guard as holy secrets those things that are heard by the practitioner

4.  Sanction

Oath-taking by medical students has increased in the last 50 years, as reported by Neil Chesanow, in “Is it time to retire the Hippocratic Oath?” Medscape, 25 Jan 2017.  The form of oath taken by medical students has also changed. Many schools have re-written the oath in “updated” language, and a good number of students craft their own.

Do they swear not to have sex with their patients? Do the medical students or newly minted physicians now swear not to give poisons or pessaries? What oaths are taken in those states where physician-assisted suicide has been made legal? It would be good for the public to know. Perhaps it is time for physicians to post on their walls (actual and virtual) exactly what it is they profess to be and to do.


— D. Joy Riley, M.D., M.A., is executive director of The Tennessee Center for Bioethics & Culture.


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Richard N. Goad
Richard N. Goad
4 years ago

Dr. Joy Riley has it right: this is a new day in medicine. We are past the paternalistic “Doctor as God” era, and to a more transparent era, where patients are partners, or at least, more invested in their treatment. I find that patients and their families want to know me, what I believe, who I am, in addition to knowing that I am committed to their well-being, and put their needs ahead of myself. We are indeed accountable to them.

Michael Knower, MD, HMDC
Michael Knower, MD, HMDC
4 years ago

Dr. Riley,

Thank you for your posting. I find that few of our medical students know the origin or significance of the terms “profession” or “professional.” As practices once considered unthinkable are thrust into the scope of the permissible, it is increasingly important to define our personal boundaries. As an Oregon hospice physician, many assume that assisted suicide is just part of what I do. Some patients fail to avail themselves of optimum care at the end of life; others are incensed when I refuse to provide the secobarbital prescription.

Perhaps we can bring some clarity as we have opportunity to educate our patients, our colleagues, and our successors. In answer to your question, it appears Oregon Health & Science University still uses the Oath of Geneva we took over thirty years ago.

Michael Knower, MD, HMDC, FAAHPM
St. Charles Hospice
Prineville, OR