When I found this out, I was a little appalled. I had been told in school that all doctors were bound by the Hippocratic Oath, and that’s why they couldn’t do things like prescribe laxatives as a practical joke or end someone’s life no matter how much pain they were in. It turns out doctors stopped taking this oath a long time ago, and just a little investigation pretty quickly shows us why.
I mean, have you ever actually read the Hippocratic Oath? I can’t read Greek, but I have to assume the translation is pretty accurate. It starts out with ‘I swear by Apollo the Healer, by Asclepius, by Panacea, and by all the gods and goddesses…’
Uh-oh. Most of the western world is a pretty big fan of a god that is often referred to as jealous, and not a big fan of other gods. As much as our statues and paintings of the supposed big guy in the sky might resemble old depictions of Poseidon or Zeus, we dispensed with all those old beliefs a long time ago. Who is going to take a modern doctor’s oath seriously if he makes it to Apollo? Certainly not me, and probably not the doctor either.
Hmmm…let’s skip ahead, see what else it says…
The next paragraph is all about sharing your business profits with your teacher, and teaching the art of medicine to his family at no cost to them should they also take this oath.
That means medical students don’t pay for their education, but they have to give the person that taught them a part of the money they make from practicing. Although it makes a lot more sense than putting young people in debt to the point where they are more beholden to the money they can make than they are to doing the right thing, this section still has a pretty glaring problem. It refers to the teacher as ‘he’, along with the members of ‘his’ family you are allowed to teach this stuff to. So, no women are allowed to be instructed in practicing medicine according to the Hippocratic Oath.
I mean, I knew the guy was a little old-fashioned…but sexist?
Oh, by the way…we’re just getting started.
The following section starts off strong, and all physicians really should have no problem agreeing to ‘use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgement, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing’. Even if that gives incompetent or uninformed doctors the wiggle room to kill a lot of people without ever really breaking the vow, it does cut down on pure unadulterated evil in medicine if everyone sticks to it.
But then, it really goes off the rails.
In the same paragraph, the oath states that the doctor swearing it shall never administer a poison. Even when asked to do so. That was all well and good when we thought leeches could suck sickness out of you, or that demonic possession was responsible for many ailments; but now we know that the best way to kill some really bad stuff is to poison it, and that some people with certain conditions are too far gone to ever recover.
We have to poison the patient to get rid of cancer, and some progressive states allow for the same mercy that all the others extend to the average pet when it comes to euthanasia. Most of the states that allow capitol punishment do it with poison, too; that might sound creepy to some of us, but it’s not nearly as creepy as a good old-fashioned hanging or death by firing squad. Even people who don’t think criminals should be put down would have to agree that having a qualified physician administer poison is a lot more humane than those other methods.
But not the Hippocratic Oath.
In fact, it goes right on to forbid that the doctor perform abortion. Ever. For any reason. I don’t really get the part that says the doctor won’t use the knife on sufferers from stone, but that might be because I’m still reeling from the fact that the Hippocratic Oath forbids abortion.
Maybe they really needed unwanted babies back then, even if it meant the mother literally had to die for it to be born; but we have no shortage of people these days. Also, women really ought to have a choice.
And, of course, equal opportunity to become a doctor.
Not so, according to the Hippocratic Oath.
The next part reiterates the whole ‘I promise not to hurt anyone’ clause, which is maybe the baby we should have kept when we threw out the bathwater. It goes on to talk about the importance of keeping secrets, and how doctors in the service of their patients shouldn’t go around blabbing about what is going on medically with those patients. It says those secrets should be holy, but remember who we’re making this oath to. What’s so holy about a Greek god no one worships anymore?
Like most good oaths, this one ends with the promise of a good life for the person who follows it and horrible misfortune for those who don’t. A lot of people who believe in the oath think it starts with a phrase that is familiar to anyone who is at all versed in virtually any Eastern religion.
‘First, do no harm.’
Although Hippocrates goes back pretty far, he doesn’t go as far back as this saying. He may have tossed it in there, or not; but he certainly didn’t come up with it. Many people think this is the basic gist of the oath, and they’re mostly right; but mostly leaves a lot to be desired, at least in this case. As clear as it may be that modern doctors need to learn to put ethics above economics, this oath is not the path to modern ethical behavior. We would need to come up with something new, and then hope the temptation to pay off those student loans is not more compelling than the desire to follow through on the better oath.
We really only have one conclusion we can draw from all this, when it comes right down to it. Once we take a good hard look at the foundation for modern medicine, we realize it got a pretty shaky start. Although we can’t blame all the foundational problems on the man referred to as the ‘father of modern medicine’, further investigation into what he thought and believed would probably have just about everyone in modern society agreeing on at least one thing. Which just so happens to be the title of next week’s post.
‘The father of modern medicine was a quack!’
Even if we give credit where it is due, taking away all the blame that would ordinarily accompany such praise, Hippocrates would not survive a day as a doctor in the modern world. He would be laughed out of any hospital or clinic for his beliefs and practices, and few people would believe that the foundation for what we do now was laid by someone so ignorant of the most basic medical knowledge of today.
We’ll talk about that, next week.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,