Upstate News

May 7, 2007
Darryl Geddes 315 464-4828

New physician’s oath to be recited at SUNY Upstate Commencement May 20

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — New physician’s oath, with a nod to Elizabeth Blackwell, to be recited at SUNY Upstate commencement Graduating medical students at SUNY Upstate Medical University will recite a new physician’s oath this year that borrows from the writings of the first American woman to graduate from medical school, Elizabeth Blackwell, who earned her medical degree in 1849 from Geneva Medical College, the forerunner of SUNY Upstate.

The new oath (which can be found at the conclusion of this story) replaces a version of the Hippocratic Oath that had been recited by medical students at SUNY Upstate commencement since the early 1990s.

“The recitation of an oath upon graduation is a ceremonial recognition that this milestone represents more than simply the granting of an academic credential,” said College of Medicine Dean Steven J. Scheinman, M.D. “Medicine is a noble profession that carries both privilege and great responsibility, and the oath reinforces this.”

The decision to change the oath came about last year when students sought changes to the White Coat Ceremony, the event that marks the beginning of one’s medical education. That served as a jumping off point to review medical education traditions, including the oath recited at commencement.

Kathy Faber-Langendoen, M.D., Chair of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities and Medical Alumni Endowed Professor of Bioethics, along with other faculty found the oath’s archaic and often ambiguous language an impediment to being understood by students.

In an informal poll of students, Faber-Langendoen found that many were not certain what some of the phrases meant. “If the 120 or so students reciting this oath aren’t sure of its meaning, then it was time to put it to rest.”

A committee of faculty members and two medical students met to craft a new oath, one with greater clarity of message that would be more meaningful to today’s students. But even as it sought to bring the oath into the 21st Century, the committee relied on the teachings of medicine’s most prominent names from the past, including Blackwell.

“Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell has such strong meaning for this campus that it seemed important that her vision of the medical profession should be incorporated in this new oath,” said Faber-Langendoen.

Concepts in the new oath that derive from Blackwell’s writings include the importance of preventive medicine and the need for collaboration between women and men in the medical profession.

The new oath retains some elements of the Hippocratic Oath, written around 400 BC, and a widely accepted revision penned by Tufts University medical school administrator, Larry Lasagna, in 1964, as well as the Prayer of Maimonides, a Jewish physician from the 12th Century.

“The new oath in very simple prose codifies the core ethics of our profession,” Faber-Langendoen said. “I think it will be helpful to our graduating physicians if, after a few years in practice, they come back to this oath to remind themselves of their fundamental commitments as physicians.”

The new oath will be recited for the first time by medical students at SUNY Upstate’s Commencement May 20.

The Physician’s Oath, in the Tradition of Hippocrates and Elizabeth Blackwell

I solemnly commit my life to serving humanity.

I will give to my teachers the respect and gratitude that is their due, and share my knowledge with those who follow me.

I will practice my profession with conscience and dignity.

The health of my patient will be my first consideration; may I never see in the patient anything but a fellow human in need.

I will treat all patients with compassion, no matter how much they differ from me.

I will respect the secrets patients confide in me.

I will remember that the physician’s duty is both to prevent disease and to treat it.

I will work together with my colleagues as brothers and sisters in service of our patients.

I will maintain the honor and the noble traditions of the profession.

I make these promises solemnly, freely, and upon my honor. May I keep this oath and, in so doing, experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

There is no single oath that physicians take upon receiving their degrees. The Hippocratic Oath, the most well-known formulation, was derived from the 4th century BCE writings of Hippocrates, a Greek physician. “The Physician’s Oath, in the Tradition of Hippocrates and Elizabeth Blackwell” is drawn from several sources. Its major source is the Declaration of Geneva, written after World War II. In the aftermath of the medical crimes of Nazi physicians, the Declaration of Geneva revised the Hippocratic Oath to state more clearly the physician’s dedication to medicine’s humanitarian goals. The Physician’s Oath also includes concepts from the Prayer of Maimonides, Louis Lasagna’s 1964 revision of the Hippocratic Oath, and the writings of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman awarded a medical degree, which she accomplished at Geneva Medical College, the forerunner of SUNY Upstate College of Medicine.

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