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What is the Hippocratic Oath?

Tricia Christensen
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

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.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon342509 — On Jul 21, 2013

The circumcision of infants violates this oath!

By anon340526 — On Jul 03, 2013

Why is it not called Imhotep's oath, after the Egyptian polymath Imhotep, the true father of medicine, whom Hippocrates refers to as his father? Hippocrates in his biography says "I am a child of Imhotep"!

By anon327674 — On Mar 29, 2013

Funny, the oath specifically says that doctors will not bring harm to any patients and be honest towards them. Well I think the perfect word is "Hypocritic Oath.” That is the perfect word to describe doctors who take oaths when they become professionals and hurt patients for their own personal gain. The code of ethics for them again clearly states that they shall abide by the following code of ethics:

To do no harm to anyone in any way; to promise to advocate for their patients in any way they can or situation, if possible; protect their patients' information; to behave in a professional manner, no matter where their patients come from or what their income level is.

The code of conduct and oath for doctors does not state that doctors do not have the right to sabotage someone's job in any way; do not have the right to be judgmental; do not have the right to force someone to love them; do not have the right to create an unsafe environment in the patient's workplace or private life; do not have the right to make medical decisions for the patient, whether it concerns insurance, or whatever.

Well, I have pretty much clarified the code of ethics from my point of view and as a patient, but I think these men and women would think I am crazy. I feel when you take a high professional position in the medical field, it clearly puts them in the spotlight. People look up to them for their assistance to get them better and to live a longer, healthy life.

In my eyes, there are doctors who play childish games and create drama in patients. In doing so, they are basically shortening the patient's life span by causing unnecessary stress and anxiety, post traumatic stress and so on. It creates more severe problems for the patients and their families and most families do not appreciate that.

Nowadays, life is really hard for everyone and I feel that the last thing people need are doctors not abiding by their code of conduct and oath. I hope I have made myself clear to people.

By anon289049 — On Sep 02, 2012

Imhotep is regarded as the Father of Medicine - an Egyptian physician long before Hippocrates. Great question @anon3920 "What contributions did Hippocrates ma[k]e to medicine?" Someone please tell me?

By anon284051 — On Aug 07, 2012

What is the point of taking the hippocratic oath when you don't live up to it? At this point, anyone in the medical profession who takes the hippocratic oath and breaks it might as well have taken the hypocritical oath in its place.

By anon264230 — On Apr 27, 2012

@anon148510 and anon152572: Actually, not performing surgery is a misunderstanding of the original translation. The actual part of the oath is so that a physician does not perform surgery, that only someone knowledgeable about a procedure can perform one. A.k.a.: What we understand as a surgeon.

It just differentiates a physician from a surgeon.

By anon249599 — On Feb 21, 2012

What does the Hippocratic Oath, old and new, say about transplants?

By anon158687 — On Mar 08, 2011

what is the new version?

By anon152572 — On Feb 14, 2011

@anon108035 - no this isn't necessarily an oath against abortion. Legally it is, but I don't think that's what the ancient greeks intended it to be, and as far as I know, no, doctors today are not required to take the original oath - many of them don't.

By anon148510 — On Feb 01, 2011

Wait, if the Hippocratic Oath also states that doctors are not allowed to preform surgeries, and that if clearly being violated, is the use of the Hippocratic Oath in a debate against abortion any help at all? And what if it is in the best interest of the mother to have the baby removed, such as that as if it would kill her? The doctor still must own up to the part of the oath that states he/she must do what is best for the patient, but he must not perform an abortion, which part of the oath stands up more to the doctor? Which part *is* more important?

And if we use the Hippocratic oath in the debate of abortion, must we not also recognize the other promises made in the Hippocratic Oath?

By anon148150 — On Jan 31, 2011

Is this what they really say? I thought that they said an actual oath.

By anon132415 — On Dec 06, 2010

The Hippocratic oath was a sacred oath taken by greek physicians. I think it should still be upheld today. when people think it is right to kill babies, it's pretty obvious our culture has no regard for morals or rules and the hippocratic oath needs to be re-installed.

By anon125024 — On Nov 08, 2010

So what do you do with a doctor who has violated the hippocratic oath. And is doing you harm when he knows you will be out of pills in six days and refuses to prescribe the pain pill you have been taking for the last four years.

By anon108035 — On Sep 01, 2010

Is this oath against abortion and does every doctor have to take this oath?

By anon101652 — On Aug 04, 2010

That's what I was looking for. What exactly do the doctors say?

By anon82213 — On May 05, 2010

what do doctors actually say in the hippocratic oath?

By anon3920 — On Sep 24, 2007

what contributions did Hippocrates made to medicine?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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