Symbolism on stage as students receive white coats

First-year medical students mark beginning of education journey at White Coat Ceremony

By Kristen O’Reilly and Bryan Goodchild

UMass Medical School Communications

September 14, 2012

The 127 members of the School of Medicine’s Class of 2016 received their white coats, the symbol of the medical profession, at the 2012 White Coat Ceremony on Friday, Sept. 14, before family, friends and learning community mentors. The ceremony officially marked the beginning of the students’ educational journey at UMass Medical School.

The white coat can be a symbol that sets the doctor apart from the patient, said School of Medicine Dean Terence R. Flotte, MD, executive vice chancellor and provost. But “being a doctor does not mean being set apart by the white coat or about being a higher authority or stature, but rather by being an unselfish healer and putting the needs of your patients and their families above yours at all times. At all times,” said Dr. Flotte.

Keynote speaker JudyAnn Bigby, MD, secretary of Health and Human Services for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, talked about a growing lack of focus on “who will take care of this patient?”

“You have arrived at a time of uncertainty in medicine. I ask you to hold on as we transition from what we know to the system we think we want,” Dr. Bigby said. “There’s no road map to tell us the step by step approach. . . . We cannot stand by and watch as the basic concept of somebody being the patient’s doctor and someone being in charge with the patient becomes a left-behind concept.”

“We as physicians and physicians-to-be must do a better job of communicating our values to each other and the larger society. Doctor’s voices should be clear, loud and strong. We are right to have faith in what we do, to believe our core values are the right ones but we must learn new ways of doing things and take the necessary risks to take the road map to the future,” she said.

Learning community co-leader David Hatem, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine, said the white coat can mean many things to many people. “It’s a cloak, a garment meant to protect, not conceal, a garment meant to convey warmth, far greater than the warmth it gives to the individual who wears it. In this ceremony and this school, UMass hopes to convey a new meaning, that of a partnership in this journey,” said Dr. Hatem.

In closing the ceremony, the class read an oath that was written by the Class of 2014, symbolizing the interclass partnership central to the learning communities.

A relatively new tradition for medical students, the White Coat Ceremony was started in 1993 by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons. The tradition emphasizes the importance of both scientific excellence and compassionate care for the patient, according to the foundation.