First-year medical students don their white coats early

by Melanie Evans

In a blinding concentration of white, the University’s first-year medical students received their clinical coats and a warm welcome from Minnesota’s professional community Saturday.
About 150 students, joined by friends and family, gathered under the bright lights of the Ted Mann Concert Hall for the Medical School’s first annual white-coat ceremony.
The three-hour event drew Medical School administrators, faculty members and alumni from around the state to share personal experiences and professional advice on the ethics and art of practicing medicine.
The graduation-style service produced traditional white coats for the students who were asked to recite Minnesota’s oath for new physicians, similar to the Hippocratic Oath — the medical code of ethics by which doctors swear to act in the best interest of their patient’s health.
For the students, donning a white coat was a symbolic gesture, said Medical School Dean Dr. Alfred Michael. The practice of reciting such an oath usually occurs following graduation from medical school.
The University is not the only medical school to perform the ceremony early. Eighty of 120 medical schools around the nation have adopted the ceremony, which began at Columbia University in 1993, Michael said.
“The white coat is an important symbol of what physicians are; it is about the doctor-patient relationship,” Michael later told students.
Introducing the white-coat ceremony at an early stage in students’ careers will help reinforce the ethical values demanded by the medical community, said Dr. Greg Vercellotti, senior associate dean for education in the Medical School.
In recent years, the medical profession has come under attack resulting from confusion surrounding the new health care environment, he said. Students must know the primary job of a physician is to relieve human suffering.
“We’re doing this to reaffirm the values of what it means to be a physician,” Vercellotti said before the ceremony.
The afternoon’s 11 speakers used both humorous and somber anecdotes to bring home the themes of trust, responsibility, commitment and respect to the novice students.
“Remember the heart that brought you into medicine,” said Dr. Raymond Christensen, a family practitioner from Moose Lake, Minn. “Always take the time to listen with your heart to your patient. Our communities expect no less.”
Trust is essential in today’s complex environment of health care and research, said Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, University biomedical ethics program director.
“In an era when so many influences may come between and undermine the relationship between doctors and their patients, what was formerly given must now be earned,” Kahn said.
University graduate Dr. Stuart Bloom, a third-year resident at Hennepin County Medical Center, recounted the fear of his first patient visit.
“I thought: I could keep myself at a safe distance, and that way nobody would get hurt,” Bloom said.
“But nobody would get help either,” he added.
Both patient and doctor survived the encounter, Bloom told the students. And his time as a resident has reinforced his belief that humor and humility are keys to positive and productive medical relationships.
“To me, being a professional … is about learning more every time you see a patient. But it has nothing to do with keeping your distance,” he said.
Jayson Dock, a first-year medical school student, said the message and support of the medical community are welcome. He added that the academic commitment of the Medical School can frustrate students as well as friends and family members.
The University has done an excellent job of introducing the clinical side of medicine, he said. Last week, a rotation of various specialists visited the students to explain their professional choices.
This week offers students their first opportunity to break in their coats as they begin patient interviews.
“It hasn’t been too difficult to see the big picture,” Dock said.