The Hippocratic oath was an oath generally thought to be written in the 4th century BCE by Hippocrates, who is considered by many to be the founder of modern medicine. Some now question Hippocrates' authorship, and certain scholars believe that instead, Pythagoras may have authored the it. However it originated, the modern version is closely associated with medical professionals and the idea that they promise not to hurt any person.
Most assume that the Hippocratic oath is taken by all doctors and that the most important part of the oath is a promise to “first, do no harm.” Actually, this phrase derives from another part of Hippocrates writing and is not in the oath. Additionally, incoming physicians do not recite the oath in its original form, though many physicians recite a modernized version.
The classic version swears first to honor one’s teachers, take care of their family or children if need be, and offer free medical training to a teacher’s children. It does describe a promise to try not to harm anyone, to prescribe medicines to the best of one’s abilities, and to never give medications that could be used to poison someone or to cause a woman to abort a child.
The Hippocratic oath further promises never to cut anyone (perform surgery), which clearly is not valuable in modern applications. It enjoins that physicians keep their patients' conditions private, that they not have sexual relationships with patients or a patient’s family, and that they work always for the good of the patients.
Certain modern versions are similar in construction. Some physicians, upon taking the oath, still swear not to perform abortions. Most tenants of the oath are promises, and do not carry the strength of the initial Hippocratic oath. Instead, any practices of physicians in most countries are legislated by governing medical boards. Breaking the laws can mean losing one’s license to practice.
The original oath contains many promises that have become increasingly morally challenging. Some may question whether or not performing an abortion or participating in physician-assisted suicide is a violation of the promise. The oath includes promises that may not be kept, even if the oath is taken with due solemnity.
Interns and fellows have often stated that 120 hour work weeks are in direct violation of any oath a physician might take. If a physician is supposed to try not to harm people, they say, then they shouldn't set such a difficult and punishing schedule for their students. Research suggests that those without adequate sleep have a far greater risk of being in a car accident, for example.
Most would be surprised to learn that about 100 years ago, only 20% of American physicians took the Hippocratic oath. The number has actually increased steadily, with virtually all medical school graduates in the US now taking some form of it. The modern oath seems more of a rite of passage than an actual swearing of actions. The only promises a physician must keep are those that are made laws by governments, medical review boards, or by the hospitals in which a physician works.