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Why the Hippocratic oath is a load of nonsense

By Mindo - 06th Apr 2021

I’ll be sticking steadfast to the Medical Council ethical guidance in favour of bygone oaths

‘Do you seriously mean to tell me you haven’t taken the Hippocratic oath?’

Politicians say it is the little thing that trips you up and they should know, especially when it comes to the tricky arena of broadcast journalism. So when I was asked about the Hippocratic oath on my weekly radio spot I did not see it as a tripping hazard, and treated the matter lightly enough. It was a welcome change from the usual R numbers and vaccine roll-out discussion, so I blithely confessed that not only had I not taken the oath, but I had not thought about for many a long year.

I went on innocently to suggest that if there had been a swearing in ceremony in what was then known as University College Galway, I might have been at a music session in a Quay Street pub and missed the whole thing. However, what I did have was the Medical Council guidelines and they were enough. Not everyone appreciates a jokey comment on a local radio discussion. Some listeners were apparently incensed that I should dare to practice at all, not having undertaken a solemn oath, and kicked up a fuss.

So I took a look at this oath, in case I could read it aloud off Wikipedia and be done with it. First, I would have had to undertake to swear by Apollo, Asclepius, Hygieia, and Panacea. Any leanings I had towards Hippocrates and his oath stopped right there. It may surprise you, but I have no fear of the Greek Gods or any hell they would send me to for oath-breaking. Zeus and his family were such a vicious incestuous bunch, I would have doubts about their medical ethics.

If I had to swear to pre-Christian Gods at all I would rather the Norse Gods. But an oath of any sort is a tricky business as Uhtred Ragnarsson could tell you. Uhtred is the protagonist in the excellent Last Kingdom books and TV series, a pagan who swears an oath to King Alfred the Great and spends most of his adventurous life regretting it. An oath binds you, right or wrong, and whatever the Great but cunning Alfred does, Uhtred has to support him, although his conscience is tested sorely and often. Not a great way for a family doctor to be – oath-bound.

We live in a secular State and it took us a long time to get here. In Ireland’s past, doctors and politicians put religion before their patients. Those who bent the knee and kissed the bishop’s ring oversaw babies taken from young mothers and given to the rich. The ‘Rare Ould Times’ were no place to be if you were gay, a single parent, or simply had a different form of Christianity. However, those who had taken their Pius Catholic oaths and were members of secret fraternities got on just fine and found the best of jobs and opportunities. Grinding the face of the widow and the orphan into the gutter for profit and persistent drunkenness on the job were oath free zones.

I have worked with doctors of many faiths and nationalities and in all cases I hoped that they left their religion at the hospital door. I really don’t want to attend somebody whose religion tells them that an illness is God’s vengeance or twins should be left to die in the jungle. In any case, the Hippocratic oath is a load of nonsense.

There is something about treating your teachers like family (I suppose I would give most of them a lift to football and a few quid on a Saturday night, but I draw the line at Christmas presents) and women don’t seem to figure much as patients. There is something about abortion, which may be the reason those listeners took more than a passing interest.

In retrospect, I gave the best answer I could have. The Medical Council guidelines are updated regularly. Hippocrates may have had his good points, but I doubt if you could use him as a resource on the advisability of accepting a Facebook friend request from a patient. I have, as it happens, more Scandinavian blood than Uhtred, who was born a Briton, and I am becoming more drawn to Viking myths and legends. But you will not see me pressing a sword into the hand of a patient on their death bed, so that when they die they will go to Valhalla. Any vows I have made are my own and outside of work, nobody’s business.

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