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Inconvenient Hippocratic Oath

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"I look at him, the sorry face
I know I have to take this case
It's who I am, it's what I do
If you were me, you'd have to, too."
Dr. Shuffhausen, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels The Musical

You're a doctor, who for whatever reason is in major league trouble with the law. Various plot reasons have put you in a hospital, where you're trying to blend in as just another doctor, rather than the one for whom there's a huge manhunt – or, alternatively, a character who isn't supposed to be a doctor at all, such as a janitor, and then you notice a patient in critical condition. He's choking, spasming, about to flatline, and none of the doctors attending him can figure out what to do about it. However, you figure it out with a glance, and your inherent morality compels you to risk your cover and safety to interfere and help another.

Can cross with Determined Doctor, a character with no hesitation in offering medical assistance to anyone, usually with disastrous consequences in these cases.

A subtrope of Dudley Do-Right Stops to Help and its related tropes: Honor Before Reason, Samaritan Syndrome, and Chronic Hero Syndrome. Compare Obstructive Code of Conduct.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Monster doesn't have a direct hospital scene, but Tenma gets in repeated trouble for being a fugitive All-Loving Hero who is ultimately unable to see any human suffer without doing something about it. He does this so often that it frequently winds up working out in his favor anyway. "Oh, hi, police officer who's about to arrest me. Don't mind me, I'm just performing life-saving surgery on your mother."
  • Chopper falls into this during One Piece's G8 filler arc. While trapped in a naval base, the soldiers of which are actively hunting Chopper and the rest of the Straw Hats, Chopper discovers that the medical staff is woefully undermanned, and the one remaining doctor suffers from hemophobia. He ends up overseeing surgeries and other general treatment for a short time before trying to escape.

    Comic Books 

    Fan Works 
  • "Last Rights": Averted. Warragul Wirrpanda, the USS Bajor's chief medical officer, would be perfectly happy to leave the Kobali to the Vaadwaur after the discovery that the Kobali were killing Vaadwaur soldiers in stasis and using them for reproductive stock. It's the Delta Alliance brass who are being inconvenient.
    Cdr. Birail Riyannis: Not very Hippocratic of you, Doctor.
    LTJG. Wirrpanda: Feh! Hang the bloody Hippocratic Oath—the Kobali have it coming after what they pulled.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • In Escape Plan, Dr. Kyrie is the doctor for a large top-secret incarceration facility known as The Tomb, tasked with keeping the inmates alive and at least stable if not completely healthy. It takes meeting Breslin for him to finally understand the gravity of how immoral his current situation is, given Breslin was sent there under false pretenses by his own employer, and the doctor is instrumental in helping him and Rottmayer escape back to the mainland.
  • In The Fugitive, Kimble sneaks into a hospital disguised as a janitor and happens across a kid who's been misdiagnosed and needs emergency surgery. He quickly forges the necessary forms and gets the patient to the right department. It almost gets him caught but it's the first thing to tip Gerard off to the possibility of Kimble's innocence.
  • In The Greatest Show on Earth, Buttons, on the run for Mercy Killing his wife, breaks his cover to treat people injured in the trainwreck at the end of the movie, whereupon he is recognized immediately and arrested in the penultimate scene.
  • In Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, although in this case Kumar is a slacker and the scene shows how he would be a skilled doctor if he applied himself.
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe: Dr Stephen Strange is shown in his solo outing to take his oath very seriously and because of it is one of the least willing of his Avengers teammates to kill people. He's explicitly killed one person (and was unnerved to have to do it) between his aforementioned solo movie and Avengers: Infinity War. Though this all goes out the window in Avengers: Endgame. Strange is the person who lays the plan out to ultimately kill Thanos and he kills Thanos's forces in the Final Battle as a Godzilla Threshold. It should be noted that the other two characters who hadn't killed people, Spider-Man and The Wasp, also lay waste to a ton of Thanos's forces.
  • In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, McCoy stops on a mission to retrieve an injured Chekov to cure a dialysis patient, muttering something about how primitive 20th-century medicine is.
    • Even funnier is that all he does is give her a pill, and she grew a new kidney. And this is after a speech about how they can't change anything. McCoy agreed completely with the speech...and still stopped instantly to help the woman.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5: In "A View from the Gallery", Dr. Franklin overhears viewpoint character Bo wonder aloud why the doctor would be treating the invading aliens along with people from their own side. Stephen relates how when his father now-General Richard Franklin's ship was shot down while intervening in a Civil War between two colonies, a doctor on the other side saved his life out of a belief that all life was of equal value—and at the cost of his own: the doctor was killed by his own men as a traitor afterward.
  • In an episode of Diagnosis: Murder, Dr. Mark Sloan is at a retirement home disguised as a wheelchair-bound senile person in order to investigate corruption. At one point, another character needs emergency medical treatment, so Sloan has to irrevocably blow his cover in front of all the staff and residents to help.
  • In an episode of ER, an Eastern European immigrant working as a janitor with a Worthless Foreign Degree in medicine jumped in to stabilize a patient, then fled in terror convinced she would be arrested/deported or at least lose any chance of getting herself recertified as a Doctor in the 'States.
  • Richard Kimble, of The Fugitive, may be the Trope Maker here. He frequently stops to help people in trouble even though he's a fugitive and risks being caught.
  • Firefly:
    • Played with in the pilot, in which Dr. Simon Tam is so desperate he claims he is willing to let an innocent (Kaylee) die unless the crew helps him and his sister River escape, which would be a subversion of this trope if true. However, as soon as Mal concedes, Simon immediately begins treating the patient and ultimately saves her life. Kaylee is entirely convinced he was bluffing, and later on, Mal tests him by lying to him about her condition deteriorating to see how he reacts.
    • Played very straight in the episode "Ariel". Simon is undercover in a hospital to get treatment for River when he passes a flatlining patient. He immediately intervenes, figures out the problem, saves the man's life, and berates the doctor who screwed up in the first place, all in a couple of minutes. This draws unnecessary attention to himself, but he's so clearly in his element that no one thinks to question whether he belongs there.
  • Inverted in Forever (2014); in the episode "New York Kids", a flashback to the 1950s sees immortal Doctor Henry Morgan attempt to save a man who was shot in a botched robbery, despite the fact that he was injured himself, but when he hears other people coming, Henry crawls away to hide and basically leaves his would-be patient to die in order to preserve his secret, this accident prompting him to officially abandon practising medicine until the present day.
  • Jack is captured by the Others in season three of Lost and made to do surgery on Ben, who is dying of a spinal tumor. While on the operating table he deliberately makes a deadly incision in order to force the Others to let Kate and Sawyer go, who are also captives. The Others call him out on this, saying that there's no way his morality would allow him to let a patient die. This also provides a problem for Jack at other times, such as being complicit in torture.
  • This is usually the case on M*A*S*H, where the protagonists are compelled to treat everyone, friend and foe alike. Dramatically inverted in an episode where an officer intends to launch a dangerous attack, in violation of orders, and Hawkeye intervenes by convincing him he had appendicitis and performing an unnecessary surgery. The plan works, but Hawkeye feels terrible about violating his oath afterward.
  • One episode of Scrubs had a girl who J.D. has a crush bring her boyfriend to the clinic. A test reveals he has gonorrhea, and he admits to J.D. that he'd gotten while cheating on her. J.D. is badly tempted to tell the girl but is bound by confidentiality. In the end she finds out from someone else, and she and J.D. start dating.
  • Star Trek:
    • In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Mirror, Mirror", while several main characters are trapped in a Mirror Universe, Dr. McCoy insists on taking the time to treat an injured Mirror Spock even though it may prevent them from getting home.
    • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation:
      • In "[1] Dr. Crusher won't leave wounded people for the Rutian medics, even as Worf, Data and Picard point out the risks of sticking around a bombing site. She gets captured as a result.
      • "I Borg", the Enterprise gets a signal from a crashed ship, but when they arrive, they see it's a Borg ship, with one surviving drone in critical condition. Picard orders the away team to kill the drone to make it seem it was killed in the crash, but Dr. Crusher insists on treating the drone, saying "When I look at my patient, I don't see a collective consciousness, I don't see a hive. I see a living, breathing boy who has been hurt and who needs our help.", prompting Picard to reluctantly allow her to treat him.
    • Star Trek: Voyager:
      • This is literally written into the Doctor's code. A big part of his Character Development, however, is that he learns to subvert it for the greater good. In "Critical Care", when kidnapped and forced to work on a hospital ship where people aren't being treated equally, he pretty much poisons a guy to force him to change the rules, even if he's uncomfortable about it later.
      • In "Latent Image", he lets a Red Shirt die to save Kim, having lacked the time to save both while his normal diagnostic program could not decide which to prioritize for care. This causes him to experience a Logic Bomb, due to the conflict between his programmed ability to make a pragmatic decision based on long-term benefits and likelihood of survival conflicting with the personality he's developed prompting him to choose who would live based upon which patient he was emotionally closer to, which nearly destroys his program in what they call a "cascade failure". The first time this happens, Janeway wipes his memory of the events and orders everyone to keep quiet. When he finds out again, Seven convinces Janeway to let it play out. Eventually, the Doctor is able to reconcile with himself and get back to his duties.
      • When the Doctor is transmitted across the galaxy to a Starfleet vessel in "Message in a Bottle", he's angered when the next model of EMH balks at treating an enemy soldier, having been programmed in a Darker and Edgier Alpha Quadrant in the midst of war with the Dominion.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Defied by the quote for the Medic template in Feng Shui:
    "I don't see plugging a maniac like you as a violation of the Hippocratic Oath at all. Basically, I look on it as preventative medicine."
  • Menders from Princess: The Hopeful are bound by their first and third oaths to helping anyone who needs it, regardless of who the person is, if that person want's their help, or rather it would put the mender in danger. It doesn't matter what their original mission was or how inconvenient the oath, they cannot ignore someone's pain!
    • They also earn bonus points for their second oath being the in-universe inspiration for the original Hippocratic oath

    Video Games 
  • Lucas Kane from the game Fahrenheit (known as Indigo Prophecy in some countries) isn't a doctor, but his paranormal abilities put him in a similar position shortly after becoming a fugitive. He has a prophetic vision of a boy falling into an icy lake, but nearby is a police officer who would recognize Kane's face. It's up to the player how to react:
    • Walking away results in the boy dying, and Kane taking a hefty hit to his sanity meter.
    • Diving in, but failing the pull-the-boy-to-the-surface mini-game results in your drowning. Game Over.
    • Rescuing the boy, but failing CPR results in you being seen by the cop, arrested, and incarcerated for murder. Game Over.
    • If you manage to save the boy's life, the cop sees and recognizes you but, in unspoken recognition of your heroic act, allows you to go free (though the cop later reports the incident to Carla Valenti), with a reward of sanity points.
  • Meta-example: The "First, Do No Harm" Medic achievement in Team Fortress 2 forces the player not to use any form of attack for an entire match, no matter what, while still getting more points than any other player on their team. Of course, they'll also have to have good luck with their choice of healing buddy to get the achievement, along with the chance of a winning player to leave the match midway through. It's actually not as difficult as it sounds for skilled Medic mains; No Experience Points for Medic is thankfully not in effect, so with a solid team it's hardly rare for a Medic to wind up MVP on a round.
  • Averted in The Last of Us Part II. Jerry doesn’t feel too torn up about cutting open a 14-year-old’s brain without her consent (on top of the fact that she’s a child who doesn’t have the capacity to understand the decision) to potentially make a vaccine.
  • Trauma Center: It happens to CR-S01 twice. The first time it happened CR did not think to escape only Ian thought he would. The second time the trope is invoked word for word. CR is there, he sees a man fall he sees Ian on the surgery side and the exit on the other. In both cases, he chooses to help the patient.

    Western Animation 
  • Family Guy lampshaded it once, with Dr. Hartman actually muttering under his breath "Lousy Hippocratic Oath."
  • Averted in the Transformers: Animated episode "The Thrill Of the Hunt". Ratchet, who was a medic during the Autobots' war with the Decepticons, is confronted by a bounty hunter from his past who stole Ratchet's EMP generator and used is as a tool to better capture his targets. When Ratchet beats him in a fight, injuring him, the bounty hunter asks for mercy and suggests that the medic use the EMP generator on him. After all of the pain said hunter has caused Ratchet's team and Ratchet personally, the doctor rips him a new one and refuses to give him treatment.


Video Example(s):


Simon Saves a Life

"Ariel". Simon, River, and Jayne infiltrate a hospital in the core worlds to do diagnostics on River. River realizes that a patient nearby is about to suffer major complications from his cardiac surgery, and Simon goes to help. After saving the patient with a debrillator, he rips the man's doctor a new asshole for nearly killing his patient by prescribing the wrong drug and causing a reaction with another drug the man was taking.

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Main / InconvenientHippocraticOath

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