The white coat has served as a symbol of the medical profession for over 100 years. A few days weeks ago, my classmates and I at the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health were “cloaked” with our very own white coat, in a right of passage called the white coat ceremony.
Dental, Medical (M.D/D.O), Optometry, Pharmacy, Physical Therapy, and many other professions of medicine have adopted the tradition of this ceremony, either as a symbol for the transition from pre-clinical to clinical years, or as a symbol of matriculation into the specific medical profession in it of itself.
The History of the White Coat
In the late 1880’s, scientists were the first professionals to wear long white lab coats. In this era, medical practices were based more so on tradition, than progress. As time went on and research in medicine made tremendous progress, things had to change. The medical profession was hauled with rigorous curriculum, and “becoming a doctor” was no longer attainable through mere apprenticeships through established physicians. To distinguish themselves from the untrained and uneducated, homeopaths, and frauds selling home made remedies on the streets, physicians began wearing the white coat. The coat embodied the new principle of medicine: healing based on sound scientific principles and research.
The color white was not arbitrary, but symbolized life, hope, and cleanliness. The coat was to represent a professional barrier between a doctor and his or her patient, while reminding the doctor of his or her professional responsibility and the idea of “humanism” to each patient.
In 1993, the first White Coat Ceremony was held at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. Dr. Gold, the founder of the ceremony, believed that “medical students should be given well-defined guidelines regarding the expectations and responsibilities appropriate for the medical profession prior to their first day of education and training. He believed that a declaration of commitment, when students accept the obligations of our profession, should be taken at the beginning of medical school, not the end”.
White coat ceremonies are held in all sorts of advanced medical training programs today. Sometimes the coats vary in length and when and how they are given to students – following an educational program’s own traditions.
There are, however, critics of the idea of the white coat in modern medicine. Some view the white coat as a negative barrier between physicians and their patients, and this intimidation taking away from their ability to effectively communicate. A named condition, called “white coat hypertension”, suggests that patients might be too intimidated by the authority of a doctor to be able to freely and effectively communicate with him or her.
Several studies have been done on this, showing different results. “In a recent survey of patients, three quarters of patients favored physicians in professional attire donning white coats, whereas casual attire was only accepted by less than 5% of respondents. Physicians wearing professional attire with a white coat inspired confidence and trust among patients. There was also a positive association with patients adhering to prescribed therapy.” Another study showed that “younger patients prefer a doctor not to wear white, while older patients prefer the opposite”.
Nonetheless, the white coat still remains the cherished symbol of any medical profession. The white coat ceremony welcomes those embarking on their respective medical careers, by giving them this powerful symbol of compassion and honor. It also gives them a standard against which they must measure their every act of care to the patients who trust them.
My White Coat Ceremony!
The 2017 ASDOH ceremony was filled with many wonderful speeches from faculty and current classmates, as well as great advice and well wishes for this difficult but incredibly rewarding journey we are embarking on. Personally, this was really one of the best days of my life – the emotional, heartwarming, realization that my dream has come true.
After the many wonderful messages, we were all called on stage, individually, to be coated. Following the coating, we recited a contemporary oath to the field of medicine. Lastly, we were officially welcomed, as the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health, Class of 2021.