The Hippocratic Oath gets an update with new language about physician well-being, respect and patient autonomy

A photo of a Caduceus pin
Recent changes to the modern version of the Hippocratic Oath encourage doctors to see to their own well-being as part of their responsibility for proper patient care. (Photo credit: Comstock)

If Hippocrates had to deal with physician burnout, he never mentioned it. After its latest updates, however, the World Medical Association’s modern successor to the Hippocratic Oath now addresses physicians’ well-being.

The Declaration of Geneva, originally adopted by WMA in 1948, serves as “a core document of medical ethics and a modern version of the 2,500-year old Hippocratic Oath,” the association said in an announcement. Among the more substantive changes is a clause designed to encourage focus on physicians’ mental state:

“I will attend to my own health, well-being, and abilities in order to provide care of the highest standard.”

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That language came at the urging of a New Zealand physician, Sam Hazledeane, who was in Chicago on Sunday as the WMA unanimously voted to include his change.

“Despite ‘first, do no harm’ being the core principal of our profession, the way we’re being as doctors—in the majority of us—is actually causing us to harm our patients,” he told Radio New Zealand.

RELATED: Is the Hippocratic Oath still relevant after 2,400 years?

While opinions vary among physicians about the Hippocratic Oath’s relevance to modern medical practice, the threat of burnout continues to be a very real concern. Despite that threat, physicians face institutional barriers to addressing mental health concerns, even as the profession produces worryingly high rates of suicide and depression, as FierceHealthcare has reported.

In addition to the language about physician well-being, the WMA adopted some other notable revisions to its Declaration--starting with a change in terminology: It will not be referred to as a "pledge."

Other changes: 

  • Language requiring students to respect their teachers will be revised to underscore reciprocal respect between teachers and students.
  • New language obliges physicians to respect patient autonomy.
  • Physicians will pledge to share their medical knowledge “for the benefit of their patients and the advancement of healthcare.”

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