This year, hundreds of medical schools will host a White Coat Ceremony for the thousands of medical students embarking on the journey to becoming a physician. Here’s our short guide to what’s involved in this rite of passage.
What is the White Coat Ceremony?
Entering medical school is the end of a long journey, and the beginning of a new one. It’s perhaps surprising that this landmark moment wasn’t formally recognized until relatively recently. The White Coat Ceremony was conceived at the University of Chicago in 1989, with the first full, formal event taking place at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1993, organized by Arnold P Gold. Since then it has spread to medical schools around the world and The Arnold P Gold Foundation is involved in many of them.
Some are skeptical about the value of what is a modern ritual. Critics say it’s unnecessary, expensive and it doesn’t add anything useful to the experience of students, other than giving a mystical aura to the physician’s white coat.
But there’s no doubting the popularity of the ceremony, not just as a celebration of the start of medical school, but as a way of explaining to students the significance of the path they are taking.
What happens at the White Coat Ceremony?
There are lots of similarities between a graduation, which marks the end of a time at university, and the White Coat Ceremony, which marks the start of medical school.
It’s very formal, with its own special uniform—the white coat. What’s different is that students are given the coat as part of the ceremony. They enter as lay people, dressed smartly, but no different from anyone else. They leave wearing the white coat that’s become a badge of office for doctors.
The significance of the white coat is its association with science. It’s a statement that the medical profession is based on scientific enquiry and knowledge, where research is ongoing.
For the last hundred years, doctors have been highly respected for their knowledge, but it wasn’t always that way. Not all early medical practitioners subscribed to the ethics of integrity and putting the needs of the patient first, and some were true quacks. The white coat, which indicates both science and good hygiene, became the symbol of doctors committed to the pursuit of genuine healthcare.
In addition to donning their white coat, the ceremony usually sees the new students taking an oath, based on the ancient Hippocratic Oath. Traditionally sworn by doctors, the oath is a commitment to protect life and uphold the high standards of the medical profession.
Who attends the White Coat Ceremony?
Just like graduation, family and friends are invited to observe the White Coat Ceremony and, unsurprisingly, many of them choose to come along.
The ceremony is overseen by the Dean or another senior figure from the medical school and members of faculty are invited to attend. Some of them will be nominated to place the white coats on the shoulders of the students during the event. These cloakers, as they’re frequently termed, are often heads of departments.
A keynote speaker will deliver an inspirational address to the gathered students, parents and faculty. In some medical schools this speech is regarded as the first lesson in the educational program, a foundation for the years of study to come.
Why is the White Coat Ceremony important?
The ceremony was developed because many medical educators felt that medical students needed to be reminded of the serious nature of the profession they were training to enter. By formally adopting the uniform of medicine—the white coat—and swearing an oath in front of their peers and family, students were accepting a new level of responsibility.
For centuries doctors have abided by the Hippocratic Oath, which is all about protecting life and serving the best interests of the patient. In practice, most doctors don’t formally recite the oath, although medical professionals seek to abide by its principles. Today, medicine is governed by national laws and codes of practice laid down by organizations like the American Medical Association.
Introducing an oath and an element of ritual right at the start of a medical student’s education is a reminder that their choices and actions can impact on the lives of others, even before formal qualification.
On top of that, the White Coat Ceremony is a celebration. It’s an opportunity to acknowledge the achievement of making it to medical school, and it looks forward to an exciting new future.