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Ethics and the Hippocratic Oath

Every month, Compassion & Choices Medical Director, Dr. David Grube, answers frequently asked questions about medical aid in dying. 

Q: Doesn’t the Hippocratic Oath preclude physicians from helping patients die?

A: The Hippocratic Oath is an ancient Greek document that is no longer used at any U.S. medical school graduation ceremony. It begins by asking for allegiance to Apollo and other mythical gods and goddesses. However, like the US Constitution, many of its important principles endure while the application of those ideals has evolved over time. The standards of 21st Century medical ethics can be found within it: Patient autonomy. Beneficence. Non-maleficence. Social justice. And most of all, duty to one’s patients and the patient’s desires and goals. As medical professionals, one of our greatest challenges is to respect our personal commitment to do no harm (professional integrity) in the face of the ambiguities resulting from advanced medical technology. While physicians can now prolong and extend life, thereby conflating the roles as healer and comforter, teacher and guide, shared medical decision making obliges the doctor to embrace full informed consent, especially in care at the end of life. Medical professionals can no longer simply fight disease at any cost, but must help patients weigh risks, benefits, and quality of life as they make their medical choices.