Professional oaths for odious professions

Hippo Portraits

Since I’ve decided to spend the next three years training to be a doctor, it’s time to read the Hippocratic Oath. Here’s the classic version:

I swear by Apollo, the healer, AsclepiusHygieia, and Panacea, and I take to witness all the gods, all the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and my judgment, the following Oath and agreement:

To consider dear to me, as my parents, him who taught me this art; to live in common with him and, if necessary, to share my goods with him; To look upon his children as my own brothers, to teach them this art, without charging a fee;

and that by my teaching, I will impart a knowledge of this art to my own sons, and to my teacher’s sons, and to disciples bound by an indenture and oath according to the medical laws, and no others.

I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.

I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.

But I will preserve the purity of my life and my arts.

I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.

In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction and especially from the pleasures of love with women or with men, be they free or slaves.

All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal.

If I keep this oath faithfully, may I enjoy my life and practice my art, respected by all men and in all times; but if I swerve from it or violate it, may the reverse be my lot.

Okay, so there are a few oddities in there but after 2,500 years that reads pretty good. A couple of points:

The doctor may be the oldest individualised profession we have. Taking ‘profession’ to mean any  job that requires specialist training and is bounded from the rest of society. This oath is a collections of values doctors profess before they’re allowed hit the big time. And in the act of professing their shared values, the oath forces doctors to consider their relationship with their future patients. In other words, doctors don’t get out of doctor school without at least once having to seriously think about everybody else in society and their relationship to them.

Imagine all ‘professionals’ had to stand up publicly and make this kind of empathy statement at least once in their life. Had to at least consider how their professional conduct over the next 40-50 years would impact everybody else.

Professional oaths for odious professions isn’t a new idea. But previous suggestions have missed the point. The value of the Hippocratic Oath isn’t that it lays out a set of rules (we have shared belief systems, social conventions and legislation for that) but that it forces junior doctors to empathise. And that’s a process we should all go through at least once in our lives.