Context: Aphorisms are succinct sayings that offer advice. They have permanently coloured medical culture and inhabit it in the same way as uncertainty; they are acknowledged, but rarely explored. Little has been written analytically or critically about the meanings and purposes of aphorisms in contemporary medical education, especially as a processional activity that maintains tradition, but both adds to and reframes it.
Discussion: We note multiple purposes for medical aphorisms, including roles as heuristics (rules of thumb) for practice, and in the identity construction of the clinician within a community beset by professional uncertainty and accountability. We suggest that aphorisms should be cared for not simply as historical curiosities, but as renewable ways of creating an 'art of memory' in medical education, stimulating recognition and recall as aesthetic rhetorical devices. In this spirit, we encourage the development of aphorisms appropriate for 21st century medicine in a process that should include the involvement of patients in building a proxy public literacy to inform collaboration in clinical encounters.
Conclusions: We propose a novel framework for aphorisms, emphasising strategies to enhance or maximise clinical judgement and professional behaviour, affirm identities, and educate the public via the media.
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2012.