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SUNY medical school drafts updated 'Physician's Oath'
Draws on Hippocrates, Maimonides, Blackwell
The last medical school in the nation to use what was considered the most archaic version of the Hippocratic Oath has created a new version of a physician's oath that was pledged by graduates during commencement in May.
State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University in Syracuse was believed to be the only medical school in the country that was still using the classical Hippocratic Oath, in which graduating medical students swore to avoid performing abortions or assisting in suicides.
The new version unveiled this year borrows from the writings of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school in America, as well as from the Prayer of Maimonides, a 12th century Jewish physician. The new oath also retains elements of the classical Hippocratic Oath, which was written around the 5th century BC, as well as parts of a modern revision written in the 1960s. (See "The Physician's Oath.)
The decision to change the oath came about when students in 2006 asked for changes to the white coat ceremony marking the beginning of their medical education. That served as a jumping off point to review medical education traditions, including the oath recited at commencement, according to the university.
Kathy Faber-Langendoen, MD, chair of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities and Medical Alumni Endowed Professor of Bioethics, said that she and other faculty members found the oath's archaic and often ambiguous language hindered students' ability to understand its meaning.
Faber-Langendoen conducted an informal poll of students, and found that many were not certain what some of the phrases meant.
"If the 120 or so students reciting this oath aren't sure of its meaning, then it was time to put it to rest," she explains.
A committee of faculty members and medical students drafted a new oath — one with greater clarity of message that would be more meaningful to today's students. But Faber-Langendoen said that as they attempted to modernize the oath, they relied on the teachings of past medical luminaries, including Blackwell.
Concepts in the new oath that derive from Blackwell's writings include the importance of preventive medicine and the need for collaboration between women and men in the medical profession.
"The new oath in very simple prose codifies the core ethics of our profession," Faber-Langendoen said. "I think it will be helpful to our graduating physicians if, after a few years in practice, they come back to this oath to remind themselves of their fundamental commitments as physicians."
While most medical schools administer an oath upon graduation, and while most are based in part on the classical version of Hippocrates' Oath, there are wide variations and none are endorsed or required by medical societies (including the American Medical Association) or state licensing boards. Medical colleges in the United States did not even start using the Hippocratic Oath at graduations until the 1800s.