What’s the Point of Swearing?

18th February 2013 by Judith Harvey

At my medical school we didn’t swear an oath. Well, not a professional oath. And once I’d seen my name on the pass list the oath I swore was never again to cross the threshold of my training hospital. But the medical school didn’t put on a passing out ceremony and it was left to a group of students to organise a party at which we celebrated our qualification and wished each other well in our careers.

We have all heard of the Hippocratic Oath, and many patients still believe we swear it, though they, like most doctors, have hazy and often incorrect ideas about what it says. Most US students swear a professional oath on qualification and many French students sign a written one, but apparently only about 50% of UK students are required to swear. (If it’s expected of you, can you refuse, I wonder?) What is it that students are being asked to commit to, and does swearing an oath make a difference?

Professional oaths have a long history. The Hindu vaidya’s oath dates from the 15th century BC. The Hippocratic Oath was probably written, not by Hippocrates, between the 5th and 3rdcenturies BC. Oaths from Jewish philosophers, from Japan and from China, all have a long history. The Declaration of Geneva was written in 1948, after the revelations of the role of physicians in Nazi extermination camps. A recent development is the White Coat Ceremony, for students moving from the classroom to the wards for their clinical studies.

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