Intended for healthcare professionals

Observations Ethics Man

Hippocrates, Michael Jackson, and medical ethics

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 02 September 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3535
  1. Daniel K Sokol, lecturer in medical ethics and law, St George’s, University of London
  1. daniel.sokol{at}

    Doctors must take special care that their judgment doesn’t become impaired when attending to powerful patients

    The Hippocratic oath has a part where the action shifts from the public sphere to the private: “Into as many houses as I may enter I will go for the benefit of the ill.” After the untimely death of Michael Jackson in June 2009, suspicious eyes have turned towards the singer’s personal physician, Conrad Murray. Although Dr Murray has denied any wrongdoing, this turn of events has forced the doctor-patient relationship into the spotlight. How does the dynamic of this relationship alter when the patient is more powerful than the doctor?

    In medical school we teach students to be aware of the power differential between doctor and patient. In a hospital setting, patients may be sick, frightened, and medically unsophisticated. Doctors, on the other hand, are generally healthy, medically knowledgeable, and in a familiar environment. Such is the typical clinical encounter. Doctors are strong; patients are vulnerable. In some cases, however, the power relationship is altered and a different set of challenges arises. …

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