The coat comes with responsibilities.

Photographer: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Tom Price's Hippocratic Oath and the Future of Obamacare

Anne Armstrong-Coben is an assistant dean in the department of pediatrics at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
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The other day, I was at a white coat ceremony, a ritual where medical students don their white coats to mark the transition from the classroom to the patient’s bedside. Seasoned physicians reflected on their experiences with patients and families who guided them along their own professional journey from student to doctor. There was no discussion of money, of insurance, of Obamacare. The day was all about the honor and duty of caring for people as they suffer or as they get well, of healing them.

The ceremony culminates with the solemn reading of the Hippocratic Oath: “I will be loyal to the profession of medicine and just and generous to its members. … I will lead my life and practice my art in uprightness and honor, … holding myself far aloof from wrong, from corruption, from the tempting of others to vice. … I will exercise my art solely for the cure of my patients. … And now, if I be true to this, my oath, may good repute ever be mine; the opposite, if I shall prove myself forsworn.”

Watching these future doctors prompted me to think of another physician, Tom Price. Dr. Price is appearing under another oath this week, in his confirmation hearing as he is considered to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. If confirmed, he could affect all of America’s health. He is an outspoken critic of Obamacare, also known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Obamacare has not been perfect, but it does, per the spirit of that sacred oath to our profession, extend health care to more Americans. It protects people with pre-existing conditions and allows young people to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26.

As a fellow physician, I would like to ask Dr. Price: How will you hold yourself true to our Hippocratic Oath in the face of outside pressures that may be more concerned with financial interest than patient care? How will you free me and other doctors from being overwhelmed with bureaucratic paperwork so that we can spend more time with patients? How will you keep those patients already burdened with illness from facing a catastrophic financial burden as well? Understanding real-world economics, will you still make the doctor-patient relationship the priority?

Dr. Price will now be surrounded by politicians who are making life-and-death choices about medicine without medical experience or knowledge. Fortunately, he has both. What an awesome responsibility. What potential for positive change.

Can he keep the Hippocratic Oath first and foremost? It should be compatible with his mission as secretary of health and human services: to give patients the best and most affordable health care possible.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net