Building a medical student oath

photo by Robert Boston

photo by Robert Boston

by Emily Merfeld

The first day of medical school was finally here. Years of studying for the MCAT, memorizing the steps of mitosis, and volunteering at the hospital had led up to this moment, as 123 students walked to class that morning thinking, “I wonder when I’ll get my stethoscope,” “I wonder who my classmates are,” and “is there as much free food in medical school as they say?”

Upon arriving that first day, we were told we would, together as a class, construct the medical oath we would recite later that week at the highly anticipated White Coat Ceremony.   The class first divided into small groups. These groups would serve as a forum for discussion. Then, representatives from each group would come together to compose the final version of our medical oath. What initially seemed like a basic discussion to fill part of our orientation schedule turned out to be incredibly poignant.

My particular small group began with one student sharing the story of a physician who had treated her family member, going “above and beyond,” as she put it. We sat there as naïve medical students on our first day, dreaming about how someday we would be that doctor who goes above and beyond for each of our patients. Then suddenly the physician leading our discussion bluntly posed the question, “Why isn’t that the expectation?” This brought pause to the group. What really are the values of the profession we were about to begin our training in? What traits are essential to being a compassionate physician?

Further, we discussed what it means to be a medical student. We contemplated the uniqueness of our education in that real people, oftentimes suffering, vulnerable patients, would be some of our greatest teachers. The obligations to these patients meant the journey we were about to embark upon was not to be taken lightly.   As members of society with the privilege of learning how the human body works, up to the edge of what is known, we were taking on a great responsibility.   We would soon be part of an exclusive group of people our society turns to in their most vulnerable situations. The first day of medical school had suddenly become much more than getting our stethoscopes and finding our go-to coffee shop for the next four years. Today was the beginning of an amazing journey. This journey was sure to be incredibly challenging, yet rewarding beyond our current comprehension.

Representatives from each group then came together to put together the final draft of the oath we would recite later that week. Each representative gave input from their group, bringing up important values of the medical profession or obligations we were about to undertake as medical students that their group had discussed. Ultimately, we had an oath we were proud of. In this oath, we pledged we would strive to empathize with our patients, to serve as their advocate. We promised to serve our communities with humility and integrity. Finally, we affirmed our commitment to a lifetime of learning and teaching, and that first day we learned one of the greatest lessons of all. We came to realize the gravity of the adventure we were about to begin, and we embraced it wholeheartedly.

Washington University School of Medicine Student Oath

With this oath, I humbly commit myself to the responsibilities and privileges of a physician in training
and to the obligations of the medical profession.

I pledge that my patient will always be my foremost consideration. I am grateful to my patients
who will serve as my teachers. I will endeavor to be worthy of their trust through
competence, compassion, and honesty. I will strive to empathize with my patients and will
honor their unique identities and circumstances. I will safeguard their confidences, respect their autonomy,
and serve as their advocate. I will educate and empower them to be guardians of their own well-being.

I commit to be held accountable as a servant to society. I will strive to earn the trust of my community,
both local and global. I will work to increase the accessibility and quality of health care for all.

I dedicate myself to a lifetime of learning, teaching, applying, and advancing the art and science of medicine.
I will approach my profession with integrity and humility, and will foster a
collaborative environment respectful of my colleagues.

I pledge to care for myself so that I may best care for others. I will act within my capabilities,
recognize my limitations, and pursue excellence as a physician.

May I hold fast to the enthusiasm and optimism with which I take this pledge.

This oath I make freely and upon my honor.

–Washington University School of Medicine 2014 Entering Class


Emily Merfeld is from Des Moines, Iowa, and earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Iowa.  She is currently beginning her first year of medical school at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.