Will a new Hippocratic Oath help fight racial injustice in healthcare?

Nurse Visiting Senior Male Patient At Home
Tiara Janté

When medical students at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine got together to write a new version of the Hippocratic oath, they wanted to be sure they “didn’t tiptoe around” issues of race, according to Sean Sweat, one of the students who wrote the new oath.

“We start our medical journey amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and a national civil rights movement reinvigorated by the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery,” begins the alternate version of the oath, rewritten for the class of 2024 at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

“We honor the 700,000+ lives lost to COVID-19, despite the sacrifices of health care workers,” it continues.

Sweat and other first year medical students recited the new pledge, along with the original version of the Hippocratic oath as a part of their orientation activities during their first week of school this semester.

The earliest known version of the oath dates back to the fifth century B.C., however, many other versions have been used since. What’s distinctive about the University of Pittsburg students’ version is that it specifically names Black people who have recently died at the hands of police.

This year, there has been a more focused look on the racial disparities that exist in the care of people of color, specifically Black people, by healthcare workers.

First-year medical students at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine work together on Zoom to craft a new version of the Hippocratic oath.
University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

According to NPR, Increasingly, medical professionals are joining protests for racial justice and acknowledging racism’s impact on public health. For example, Black residents of Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is the county seat, have been disproportionately hurt by the coronavirus, like Blacks in other parts of the United States. Though 13% of Allegheny County is Black, Black residents make up nearly 19% of cases and 30% of COVID-19 hospitalizations. (NPR)

“This pandemic has wreaked havoc on minority populations,” Sweat says. “It has revealed the many gaps within the medical field. … A lot of those gaps that this pandemic has revealed, those are things we need to go after to fix.”

Bioethicist Laura Guidry-Grimes agrees this year has been a “paradigm-shifting time” that has brought a “reckoning” for medicine, and therefore she likes that the University of Pittsburgh version of the Hippocratic oath discusses COVID-19, according to a report from NPR.

“[It acknowledges] that we have been challenged and learned the hard way … that what we’ve been doing is not enough,” says Guidry-Grimes, an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Humanities and Bioethics at the University of Arkansas to NPR.

Hopefully, this oath takes speed and becomes a blueprint for fully inclusive methods of treating people within Black communities, and improvements will be made throughout the United States. If anything, the discussion needs to continue.

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