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Updating the Hippocratic Oath to include medicine's social contract




It is widely understood that reciting a contemporary version of the Hippocratic Oath has two purposes. It constitutes a public commitment on the part of the prospective doctor to preserving the traditional values of the medical profession and to meeting the obligations expected of a doctor. It is also an important symbolic ritual in the process of professional identity formation.


A portion of the 1964 version of the Hippocratic Oath is examined for its relevance to the current practice of medicine. Its closing paragraph reads: ‘If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, be respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.’ This is interpreted as representing the doctor's expectations of the practice of medicine: job satisfaction; status, and prestige. It also conveys the understanding that enjoying these benefits is contingent upon the doctor's adherence to the terms of the Oath.


Our current understanding of the relationship between medicine and society is that a social contract exists under which members of the profession are granted a privileged position in society on the understanding that they will meet society's reasonable expectations. These expectations entail obligations not only to patients and to the profession, but to wider society. The Oath under consideration, which concentrates on medicine's obligations to patients and to the profession, does not adequately reflect its obligations to society. It is suggested that versions of the Hippocratic Oath used in the future should be updated to better reflect the obligations of both individual doctors and the medical profession to society.