Hippocrates Timeless Still

My article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 

J R Soc Med. 2013 Jul;106(7):288-92

can also be read in full here in the James Lind Library online


The special interest in each person’s particular characteristics distinguishes Hippocratic medicine significantly from modern medicine. Hippocrates put the person at the center of his attention, while modern medicine focuses on the disease. Hippocrates was first and foremost interested in finding out what led to the development of the symptoms experienced by the person. He distinguished lifestyle patterns and personal characteristics that predisposed to certain conditions. Although modern medicine is increasingly accepting the importance of lifestyle in the development of chronic diseases, it continues to give priority to examining the illness and treating the symptoms. Hippocratic therapies involved primarily changes in food, exercise and other lifestyle patterns while modern medical treatments concentrate on pharmacological and surgical interventions.

In The Art, the writer gives general advice on how a patient should be treated. He explains that medical treatment consists of much more than drugs:

The most famous doctors cure by changing the diet and lifestyle of their patient and, by using other substances. Such capable doctors have the knowledge and ability to use 
the therapeutic properties of most natural or man-made products (The Art 2.6; Jones 1923)



‘A wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings and learn how by his own thought to derive benefit in his illnesses’ Hippocrates

The Hippocratic Corpus is a collection of 60 books attributed to the great ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, although not all of them are written directly by him.


Hippocrates’ plane tree, under which he taught his pupils

In the Corpus, a number of texts refer to the need for each person to take initiative for their own health. In the book ‘Regimen in Health’ the author says the following: 

‘A wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings and learn how by his own thought to derive benefit in his illnesses’

The Hippocratic doctor practised medicine close to the patient, listening carefully to their story and observing in great detail all aspects of signs and symptoms, as they developed over a period of time. Only then did he reach a conclusion as to the best treatment to restore health.

During treatment, the doctor continued to observe the patient and adapted his advice according to changes in the person’s clinical situation and environment.

Each person was given a personalised healthcare plan which involved adapting diet, physical activity and other aspects of daily life such as baths, sleep, natural exercises (singing, meditation) and habits.

In conjunction with this, the physician asked each person to take initiative for their own health. Engaging them in their own care was important for the success of the prescribed treatment, especially since it quite often lasted a long time.

The patient was asked to pay close attention to the reactions in their body.

This personalised approach and patient education and empowerment could help many people in our days, as diseases that are linked to our lifestyle (such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer) are increasing.

These diseases require a combined approach, which pays attention not only to drugs, but also to each person’s diet, physical activity and lifestyle in general.

This approach can only be successful if the patient is fully engaged with it and adopts it for a long time, if not for lifetime.