Charting Your Purpose by Writing Your Professional Oath

Last Updated on March 6, 2024 by Laura Turner

Premeds dream of reciting the Hippocratic Oath dressed in their new white coat embroidered with the crest of their medical school. The White Coat Ceremony, encouraged by the Gold Foundation to emphasize the importance of humanism and compassion in medicine, uses the ritual of reciting a professional oath to highlight the expectations of professionalism and the responsibilities of the new community, history, and culture one has entered as a student physician. Since their inception in the early 1990s, white coat ceremonies have expanded to all doctoral-level health professional fields. These observances mark the embrace of the new profession, including those pursuing biomedical PhDs (Iverson, 2001), either at the start of the journey or before beginning clinical education.

Few medical schools use the Hippocratic Oath in their White Coat Ceremonies nowadays. In addition to controversies about its origins (Gupta 2015, Bailey 2016), many historians, ethicists, and educators note that while the symbolism of ethical behavior remains foundational, the Hippocratic Oath does not effectively address many of the challenges facing modern healthcare (Veatch and Macpherson, 2010). Some religiously devout students and practitioners may object to swearing an oath to Apollo (Hulkower 2016), so interfaith and non-religious alternatives have been developed (Kopel 2021).

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Modern challenges are reflected in the codes of ethics (de Bruin, 2016; Iverson, 2001) and ceremonial oaths developed by businesses, international organizations, and societies. In 2021, responding to outrage regarding George Floyd’s death, the Association of American Colleges of Pharmacy and the American Pharmacists Association jointly approved revisions to the Oath of a Pharmacist.

In addition to revised oaths from professional organizations, many schools have created customized oaths for their institution, including declarations to adhere to integrity and medical ethics, reinforcing their mission and core values. Individual schools’ oaths reflect their professional expectations for enrolled students and trainees. The student oath for the Southern College of Optometry (accessed November 29, 2023) describes students’ ideal relationships with patients, instructors, and leaders. Following the ASDA 2017 resolution, dental schools have adopted student-authored oaths that apply to dental and dental hygiene students (West Virginia University, accessed November 29, 2023). As part of their socialization into the profession, first-year medical students are often charged with writing oaths that reflect contemporary societal challenges, such as health equity (regardless of gender or racial identity), misinformation, and social justice. When choosing schools, the professional oath serves as a compass, summarizing the ideals that oversee the community of learners and faculty.

Articulate Your Professional Mission and Core Values

To define your own mission as an applicant, writing a personal oath that schools on your list should meet helps you prepare for applying. Once a specific oath is drafted, you can be more selective when assessing schools that fit with your goals as a health professional.

Salud America offers a guide to help write a professional oath (2022). Examples in the toolkit illustrate how medical students gathered a coalition of other students, faculty, administration, and alumni to craft an oath for their class. The drafted oaths acknowledge the importance of social responsibility, health equity, and patient advocacy.

The final draft should remind students to apply the AAMC Premedical Competencies or the UK Medical Schools Council’s  “What Makes a Good Doctor” attributes to their behaviors. We can see these characteristics highlighted in the 2022 AACP Oath of a Pharmacist (competencies highlighted):

“I promise to devote myself to a lifetime of service to others [service orientation] through the profession of pharmacy. In fulfilling this vow:

I will consider the welfare of humanity and relief of suffering my primary concerns [empathy]

I will promote inclusion, embrace diversity, and advocate for justice to advance health equity [cultural awareness, cultural humility]

I will apply my knowledge, experience, and skills to the best of my ability to assure optimal outcomes for all patients [academic competencies]

I will respect and protect all personal and health information entrusted to me [ethical responsibility to self and others]

I will accept the responsibility to improve my professional knowledge, expertise, and self-awareness [commitment to learning and growth]

I will hold myself and my colleagues to the highest principles of our profession’s moral, ethical, and legal conduct [ethical responsibility to self and others, teamwork and collaboration, reliability and dependability]

I will embrace and advocate changes that improve patient care [resilience and adaptability]

I will utilize my knowledge, skills, experiences, and values to prepare the next generation of pharmacists [interpersonal skills].

I take these vows voluntarily with the full realization of the responsibility with which I am entrusted by the public.” (American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, accessed December 15, 2023)

Adding to this framework, your personal oath may acknowledge your journey to the profession, acknowledging impactful life experiences, role models, and influencers that serve as touchstones and help you maintain a sense of purpose and resilience. Community health data identifying needs and gaps in service can remind you and those interviewing you about how becoming a healthcare professional will advance your advocacy impact. Reminders of meaningful experiences from clinical experience or community service volunteering can add depth to a commitment to service in and beyond a health professional role. 

I find that advisees who thoroughly invest in this exercise before applying have an application with a strong focus on their motivations to pursue a health career and can better discern programs that fit their vision. It also provides a platform to develop strong application essays and personal introductions at recruitment events or interviews.

Becoming a health professional requires establishing trust with the community you serve. Professing the ethics and values that govern the application of medical expertise in a compassionate, ethical manner is part of that personal transformation from a student to a healthcare leader.

This article is written for Becoming a Student Doctor. It is a curated resource to help health professional applicants and early students understand topics and challenges that will likely define their training and early careers in the next decade.

Works Cited

Bailey, Melissa. (2016). So long, Hippocrates. Medical students choose their own oaths. StatNews. Accessed November 29, 2023.  

de Bruin, B. (2016). Pledging Integrity: Oaths as Forms of Business Ethics Management. Journal of Business Ethics, 136(1), 23–42. 

Gupta, Saurabhk. (2015). Hippocrates and the Hippocratic oath. Journal of the Practice of Cardiovascular Sciences. 1. 10.4103/2395-5414.157583. 

Hulkower, Raphael. (2016). The History of the Hippocratic Oath: Outdated, Inauthentic, and Yet Still Relevant. Einstein Journal of Biology and Medicine. 25. 41-44. 10.23861/EJBM20102542. 

Iverson, Molly. (2001). Should there be an Oath for Scientists and Engineers? Meeting Summary, AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility. Accessed December 15, 2023. 

Kopel J. (2021). The Hippocratic Oath across the interfaith spectrum. Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent). 2021;35(2):266-269. doi:10.1080/08998280.2021.1993113 

Pharmacy organizations update Oath of a Pharmacist. News release. American Pharmacists Association; December 16, 2021. Accessed December 17, 2021. 

Smith, Amber. (2018). The oath physicians take: comparing what new medical school graduates promise. Upstate Health: Upstate Medical University. Accessed November 29, 2023. 

Veatch, Robert & Macpherson, Cheryl. (2010). Medical School Oath-Taking: The Moral Controversy. The Journal of clinical ethics. 21. 335-45. 10.1086/JCE201021409.

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