University of Chicago, Illinois, United States
The Hippocratic Oath is surprisingly short in length given its indisputable importance to the medical community over the past 2,000 years. Its rules—such as “I will use my power to help the sick to the best of my ability and judgment” and “I will be chaste and religious in my life and in my practice”—are succinct.1 The oath addresses the physician’s role in a student-teacher relationship most extensively, elucidating the topic in the first section, which describes the oath by which physicians must swear. The elaboration and placement of this text was doubtlessly for a purpose, and holds impressive relevance both to the time when the oath was written (ca. late 5th century BCE) and to modern medical practices.
The primary point of the piece, the student-teacher relationship is described in three sentences; notably, it is the most expansive section in the oath. It emphasizes that the mentorship bond is as strong as that of family, explaining how the relationship should last through subsequent generations, promoting an impenetrable structure that maximizes the development and understanding of new doctors. From my own experience, few things are more valuable than a mentor who helps show a prospective physician how best to handle situations that coincide with the different aspects of medicine. With the maintenance of relationships between students and their mentors over the years, each incoming group of physicians—having benefited from the experience of their direct predecessors—will ideally be more learned than the last.
One does not have to search far to find evidence demonstrating the impact of having mentors. In fact, we can take an example from this very journal! In Volume 3, Issue 4, Dr. Lewis Wall gives a narrative entitled “On Becoming a Good Physician: An Ancient Dialogue,” in which Zeno shares with Cleanthes, his protégé, knowledge gained from shadowing famed physicians. Confused and longing to learn, Cleanthes is on a quest to “emulate” the best; notably, it is his mentor, Zeno, who cautions him about “chas[ing] wildly after the latest therapeutic fashion from Egypt, just because it is now popular.”2
Cleanthes’ desire to learn from a renowned mentor is a characteristic of a fine medical student; however the quality of the mentor plays a strong role in his learning experience. Presumably, two similarly prestigious physicians with two different teaching styles—for example, one apathetic to the further education of his student vs. one quite involved, consistently questioning and challenging his mentee—would result in very different students. The first student would simply mimic his superior in future cases, whereas the second would be prepared to encounter new problems; not only would he recall his mentor’s actions, but he would able to use reason in dealing with new situations.
The ability to discern—rather than just emulate—is a crucial benefit of working closely with experienced physicians, encouraging students to evaluate a situation from multiple perspectives prior to taking action. To achieve maximum benefit, a mentor must actively present challenges to his or her mentee. In any profession, a person can mimic a more experienced person’s motions; but this does not make for a great leader, or a great innovator. It is important to remember the incredible relationship of Socrates to Plato, and Plato to Aristotle—each a student inspired and challenged by his mentor, and consequently, each great by his own conclusions.
Despite the apparent significance of the student-teacher relationship, this concept has taken a back seat in the modern form of the oath. Let us assume that the best representation of the modern oath is the American Medical Association’s “Principle of Ethics,” adopted in 1957 and revised most recently in 2001. The closest points to addressing the importance of mentorship in the document are perhaps V and VII3; but still, these are hardly the same concept. In one of his essays, Dr. Leon Kass observes that the “new” principles are much more concerned about how the physician presents his or herself to society4—not the values that the physician should hold personally as a doctor. Certainly, this is problematic.
The idea that free and willing mentorship may not be as emphasized in modern society is disheartening. As a pre-medical student, I have benefited from the experience of several doctors and hospital administrators who took me under their wing, improving my assurance in my decision-making. For many, medicine is a frightening career choice, one that directly affects the lives of other human beings. Hippocrates knew this, and understood that the student-teacher relationship was crucial to the development of good medicine and confident physicians.
I believe I speak for many when I say that medical students, prospective and current, often find themselves feeling forced to mimic the “top physicians”; like Cleanthes, we are fearful that we may not be able to compete with someone of seemingly infinite experience. To prospective mentors: be our Zeno, our Socrates, and our Plato. Challenge us. Make the bond between a student and teacher extraordinary—enable future generations to hone their critical thinking skills, so that we may act independently when our mentors have long retired. Do not forget the original Hippocratic Oath because, in its brevity, it portrays the key values to which each physician should aspire, even now.
- G. E. R. Loyd, ed., "The Oath," In Hippocratic Writings (London: Penguin Classics, 1978), 67.
- L. L. Wall, "On becoming a good physician," Hektoen International 3, no.4 (December 2011).
- "Principles of Medical Ethics," American Medical Association (June 2001), http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/physician-resources/medical-ethics/code-medical-ethics/principles-medical-ethics.page.
- Leon Kass. "Is There a Medical Ethic? The Hippocratic Oath and the Sources of Ethical Medicine," Towards a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs (New York: The Free Press, 1985), 231.
STEPHANIE L. GRACH, is a third-year student at the College at the University of Chicago. She is currently pursuing a double major in the history, philosophy, and social studies of science and medicine and biological sciences. She has great appreciation for her mentorship experiences, including those with the Region V Department of Health and Human Services, Building Healthier Communities USA, and the University of Chicago Medical Center’s Urban Health Initiative, and dedicates this to all of those involved in them.