Code of ethics for medical doctors

Updated April 17, 2017

Upon being sworn in as a doctor, most medical school graduates recite the Hippocratic Oath, one of the more well-known codes of ethics for medical doctors. The Hippocratic Oath is not the only ethics code that exists for doctors, however. Almost since medicine began, doctors have been creating ethical codes to follow to ensure the safety of their patients as well as themselves.

Earliest Codes

One of the earliest known medical ethical codes is the Hippocratic Oath. The National Institutes of Health reports that scholars estimate the oath was written during the 4th century B.C. The code seems to have more influence by followers of Pythagoras rather than Hippocrates. The oath contains the well-known motto “to do no harm.” New physicians recited the oath and swore to several gods of healing that they would perform their job to the best of their abilities and avoid performing unethical acts against patients. While the Hippocratic Oath is not a requirement of most modern medical schools, many graduates recite an updated version of the oath, written by Louis Lasagna in 1964.

Thomas Percival’s Additions

Building upon the ideas of the Hippocratic Oath, English physician Thomas Percival published a code known as Medical Ethics; or, a Code of Institutes and Precepts Adapted to the Professional Conduct of Physicians and Surgeons. This code was written in 1803 and described the responsibility physicians had to serve others in need, as mentioned on the Johns Hopkins University website. Percival also noted that physicians should be figures of moral authority and should have individual honour when practicing their craft.

AMA Code of Ethics

The American Medical Association in the United States caught wind of Percival’s ethics code. In 1847, the AMA adapted Percival’s medical ethics code for use within the United States. Johns Hopkins University states that the AMA Code of Ethics was the first code instated by a national professional organisation. The code notes a doctor’s responsibility to treat the patient as well as supporting universal access to medical care. Other points within the code include honesty, lawfulness, the importance of continuing education and respect of patients’ rights. This code has been updated numerous times to reflect changes within the health-care field. The most recent update in 2001 adds in two more articles, bringing the total to nine.

WWII and the Nuremberg Code

With the revelation of medical crimes committed in concentration camps during World War II by Nazi doctors, a new code was created. Judges at the Nuremberg trials, according to Brown University, noted that the Hippocratic Oath did not seem to be enough to make physicians practice ethics. The Nuremberg Code was created in 1947 to enforce the notion that medical investigators were not the sole authority on the ethics of conducting research. The code combines the ethics of the Hippocratic Oath with a means of protecting basic human rights in order to prevent experimentation on patients.

International Code of Ethics

Not long after the Nuremberg Code was created, the World Medical Association adopted its own code of medical ethics. After meeting in London in 1949, the association concocted the International Code of Medical Ethics of the World Medical Association. This code is one that doctors worldwide are expected to adhere to. Like other codes, it emphasises professionalism in medical practice. The doctor is expected to be completely loyal to a patient, and the code introduces the concept of doctor-patient confidentiality.

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About the Author

Ticara Gailliard is a college graduate with a degree in communications/film and video production from the University of Memphis. She has been a writer for over 15 years and has been published in local writing magazines such as "Grandmother Earth." She also edited two books for her high school.