New oath called for to guard ethics

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Doctors called yesterday for an updated version of the Hippocratic oath to be drawn up, to make sure that ethical standards are maintained under mounting NHS pressure.

At the BMA's annual meeting, Doctor Stuart Horner, chairman of the ethics committee, said although almost everyone believed doctors took the oath, only three medical schools, in fact, used it.

He said the central principles of the original oath, believed to have originated in the 5th century BC, held good today. "The sanctity of life, confidentiality, respect for the doctor-patient relationship and not having sexual relationships with patients are still values which we accept.

"Doctors are not just about book-learning; medicine implies a commitment to a series of principles," he said.

He added later: "There is a feeling that ethical standards are beginning to slip and a concern that the biggest threat is the commercial market."

About half of Britain's 27 medical schools use no oath.Four, Birmingham, Leeds, Leicester and Liverpool, use a modern version, the Dedication of Geneva, drawn up in 1947.

In the original oath, which is long and sworn to Greek gods, doctors swear to "please no one, will I prescribe a deadly drug, nor give advice which may cause his death. Nor will I give a woman a pessary to procure abortion. But I will preserve the quality of my life and art".

It goes on: "All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or outside of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not be spread abroad, I will keep secret and never reveal."

The Geneva Declaration, put together when the World Medical Association was founded,uses less colourful imagery. Doctors pledge themselves topractise their profession with "conscience and dignity"; to put the health of their patients first and to use "all means in my power to maintain the honour and the noble traditions of the medical profession".