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Do no harm: is it time to rethink the Hippocratic Oath?

Authors

  • Merrilyn Walton,

    Corresponding author
    1. School of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
    • Correspondence: Professor Merrilyn Walton, Edward Ford Building, School of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales 2006, Australia. Tel: 00 61 2 9351 3678; E-mail: merrilyn.walton@sydney.edu.au

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  • Ian Kerridge

    1. Centre for Values, Ethics and Law in Medicine, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
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Abstract

Introduction

The 1964 revision of the Hippocratic Oath addressed the disconnection in language and context between the classical doctrine and 20th century medicine. Now, 50 years later, we argue that any revision of the Oath must be responsive to the significant social, technical and political changes that have occurred in health care.

The context for the Hippocratic Oath

This paper examines the ways in which health care and the health professions have changed over the last half-century and describes a range of environmental and contextual features that expose the inadequacies of the 1964 Oath in the worlds of today and the future. We note the constancy of the doctor–patient dyad in contemporary ethical codes and consider from the perspective of patient safety those aspects of care that might fall short of the optimum if the focus on the doctor is retained. We ask whether there is any merit in maintaining a focus on the ethics or professionalism of doctors, or whether more of our attention should be directed towards the ethics of health care itself.

Conclusions

Patient safety is widely acknowledged as a major health issue. Being open about the interdependency of doctors, the complex socio-political nature of health care, and the inevitability of errors and adverse events need not challenge the authority of the doctor. Rather, openness about both the ways in which medicine has changed and the harms that doctors may (inadvertently) cause might afford medicine the opportunity to build a different relationship with patients (and with society more broadly), that recognises complexity, human fallibility and the uncertainty of medicine.

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