Oath Taking at U.S. and Canadian Medical School Ceremonies: Historical Perspectives, Current Practices, and Future Considerations

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Abstract

The widespread use of oaths at medical commencements is a recent phenomenon of the late 20th century. While many are referred to as “Hippocratic,” surveys have found that most oaths are modern, and the use of unique oaths has been rising. Oaths taken upon entry to medical school are even more recent, and their content has not been reported. The authors surveyed all Association of American Medical Colleges member schools in the United States and Canada in 2015 and analyzed oath texts. Of 111 (70.2%) responses, full texts were submitted for 80 commencement and 72 white coat oaths. Previous studies have shown that while oaths before World War II were commonly variations on the original Hippocratic text and subsequently more often variations on the Geneva or Lasagna Oath, now more than half of commencement ceremonies use an oath unique to that school or written by that class. With a wider range of oath texts, content elements are less uniformly shared, so that only three elements (respecting confidentiality, avoiding harm, and upholding the profession’s integrity) are present in as many as 80% of oaths. There is less uniformity in the content of oaths upon entry to medical school. Consistently all of these oaths represent the relationship between individual physicians and individual patients, and only a minority express obligations to teach, advocate, prevent disease, or advance knowledge. They do not reflect obligations to assure that systems operate safely, for example. None of the obligations in these oaths are unique to physicians.

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