Humility and respect: core values in medical education


  • Larry D Gruppen

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Medical Education, University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, MI, USA
    • Correspondence: Larry D Gruppen, Department of Medical Education, University of Michigan Medical School, G1111 Towsley Center, 1500 East Medical Center Drive, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-5201, USA. Tel: 00 1 734 936 1644; E-mail:

    Search for more papers by this author



Many of the values and behaviours described in the original Hippocratic Oath are relevant to medical education. In particular, the values of intellectual humility and respect for one's colleagues are essential in all scientific disciplines. There are three contexts within medical education from which to consider humility and respect: uncertainty; theory, and colleagues.


As medical education grows in scope and participation, we will be required to acknowledge that we ‘know not’ with increasing frequency. The uncertainty of what we do and do not know is compounded by uncertainty about whether ignorance is individual or corporate. As difficult as it is to admit that we ‘know not’, it is dangerous NOT to recognise the limits of our knowledge and experience.


Theories are critical tools in understanding complex phenomena. They identify constructs and relationships that are important and those that are irrelevant. We tend to forget that theories are models or simplified representations of reality and not in themselves ‘truths’. Viewing problems from other theoretical perspectives can widen our horizons by allowing us to identify possibly important concepts and relationships that we have not considered.


Colleagues are invaluable for helping us respond to our ‘knowing not’ and for providing alternative perspectives when our theories lead us astray. However, colleagues come in many guises and include close colleagues, as well as those in distant fields.

Obstacles to humility and respect

As obviously desirable as humility and respect seem to be, there are conflicts that prevent us from being humble and respectful. Such conflicts include other salient professional values, such as critical scepticism, competition and confidence.

Honouring the Oath

Adoption of the values of humility and respect in medical education can be fostered through intentional behaviours, both as individuals and as a discipline. We can deliberately seek to broaden our horizons to promote intellectual humility. We can foster collaboration among colleagues who come from different places, both geographically and intellectually. Finally, we can pursue ‘academic cultural exchanges’ with other fields and disciplines to learn and share in different ways of thinking.