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Letters to the Editor

Honoring the Hippocratic Oath: Medical Student Perspective Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

Zhou, Bright P. MS

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doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000003527
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To the Editor:

Recently, Stanford clinical students received an email notification that our clerkships would be suspended for the next 3 months amid the rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic. I had just finished a shift on inpatient pediatrics, where in a stirring morning report, a housestaff member reminded everyone of the Hippocratic Oath—our profession’s ethical obligation to care for the sick. In the next few days of staying home, my classmates rallied for health care workers and patients on the frontlines: organizing childcare, collecting protective personal equipment, and encouraging our communities to donate blood.

In the midst of these national supply shortages, I took social distancing precautions to donate blood. After answering a few intake questions; however, I was dismayed to learn that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to defer blood donations from men who have had sex with men (MSM) or women who have had sex with MSM in the last 12 months due to concerns of HIV transmission (now in the last 3 months, citing urgent need for blood donations during the COVID-19 pandemic).1 As an MSM medical student who has been in a 2-year, long-term monogamous relationship, I was frustrated by the FDA’s rigid guidelines, feeling especially helpless in not being able to assist with pressing frontline efforts.

This feeling of not being helpful is likely familiar to medical trainees who, in fulfilling the Hippocratic Oath, have each learned to interpret “do no harm” within our own balance of patient care and student learning. Indeed, whether through invasive procedures, precious faculty teaching time, or vulnerable interviews, we rely on the generosity of our patients and preceptors to further our learning. Yet in this virtual and sheltered limbo, we are faced with the difficult process of redefining what this oath now means. Over the coming weeks, the path to honoring our oath is no longer so clear as we navigate the uncertainties of virtual clerkships, postponed licensing exams, and where to best extend our efforts outside of the clinic. My colleagues and I have a new opportunity to revisit our Hippocratic Oath, to determine how we can best serve our patients and community, and to lay stronger foundations for the ethics that will guide our future practice.


The author wishes to thank Justin Jia and Marija Kamceva for their inspiration and encouragement in submitting this piece.

Bright P. Zhou, MS
Third-year medical student, Stanford University, Stanford, California;; ORCID:


1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. Revised recommendations for reducing the risk of human immunodeficiency virus transmission by blood and blood products, Part III, Section B, Subsection 9-10. Published April 2020. Accessed May 28, 2020.
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