The Hippocratic Oath: Is There a Doctor in the House?


One of the most popular medical shows on TV is House, M.D. In case you haven’t seen the show, each episode focuses on an especially difficult medical case that no one can solve. That is, no one until the brilliant Dr. House steps in. House uses whatever means necessary to solve each case, including violating standard ethical practices. His patients are often subjected to an endless number of painful and medically risky procedures and experiments to achieve a diagnosis. To make matters worse, he is rude and insulting to his patients and staff alike.

While House is exceptionally bright and usually figures out the medial mystery, I wouldn’t want him to be my doctor. He uses brutal means to accomplish brilliant ends, caring more about the disease itself than the patient’s well-being. Fortunately, most “real” doctors recognize that such behavior conflicts with the standards of the medical profession.

For many centuries, physicians took the Hippocratic Oath as they entered the medical profession. This code was written by Hippocrates, the “father of modern medicine.” Central to this oath is the physician’s commitment to the health and well-being of their patients and the recognition that the patient, not the disease, should their primary concern. Physicians were to take the best interests of their patients to heart, and above all else, to “first do no harm.”

Hippocrates recognized that ethics cannot be divorced from the practice of medicine. The Hippocratic Oath stipulates that physicians should “keep themselves free from all intentional wrong-doing and harm,” protect patient confidentiality, and only perform those procedures which they are qualified to perform. As a healer, the physician must never perform abortion or euthanasia. Hippocratic physicians vow to practice medicine, “in purity and holiness,” committing themselves to not only technical excellence, but moral excellence as well.

House frequently gets a free pass for his unethical and unprofessional behavior in the world of television. In reality his behavior is used in medical ethics classes to teach what not to do. Every good physician puts ethics front and center.

But simply following ethical principles does not make a physician great. Dr. Edmund Pellegrino reminds us that “the ethics of character and virtue remain . . . the central issue in medical . . .ethics.[1] He suggests that the relationship between physician and patient is “a relationship of love . . . of giving oneself and one’s knowledge for the benefit of others, as Christ would have done.” [2] Dr. Pellegrino points us to the Great Physician, Jesus Christ. Jesus healed those who came to him, treating each one with kindness and respect.

Great physicians strengthen a noble profession. Dr. House may be a brilliant doctor, but he has a long way to go to be a truly great physician.

[1] Edmund D. Pellegrino and David C. Thomasma, The Christian Virtues in Medical PracticeI, (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1996) 13.

[2]Ibid, 146.


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