January 26, 2006

Cornellians Modernize Hippocratic Oath

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On graduation day two years ago, Dr. Antonio Gotto, dean of the Weill Cornell Medical College, administered the Hippocratic oath to a new class of doctors. As he looked out into the audience, Gotto said that he noticed many new graduates rolling their eyes, making faces, and even laughing at the words that newly trained physicians have sworn by since the Bronze Age.

As enduring a symbol of the medical profession as the stethoscope, the caduceus and the white lab coat, the Hippocratic oath has alternately been venerated as a sacred connection to medicine’s past and derided as an anachronistic relic. The classical version of the oath includes references to Greek gods and divine retribution.

For Gotto, the time had come for a change.

“I felt that the principles that were in the oath were still very important and needed to be enunciated,” he said.

Under his direction, a committee of Weill Cornell faculty and students from the Qatar and New York campuses convened to investigate revising the oath for use in a modern context.

Gotto charged Dr. Joseph J. Fins M.D. ’86, chief of the division of medical ethics and professor of medicine and public health, with leading the broad-based committee.

“We wanted to use the oath as an educational tool to spark this ethical discussion,” Fins said, adding that one of the most important parts of the project to revise the oath was its involvement of so many different sectors of the college.

Dr. Kayhan Parsi, coauthor of a 2000 report on medical oaths, said that his report identified a trend toward medical schools creating their own oaths.

“The biggest difference is that at Cornell