The 51 first-year students at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM) declared their commitment to the medical practice of humanism and recited the Hippocratic Oath on Friday as they put on their white coats for the first time. At a ceremony in downtown Roanoke, family members cheered as their students walked across the stage to receive their new attire from faculty physician leaders.
“The symbolism of the white coat is significant in the medical profession. For more than 100 years, patients have trusted that physicians in their white coats will display the professionalism and humanism that is critical to compassionate health care,” said Lee Learman, dean of the school. “Since they began their medical studies here in July, these first-year students have learned about the responsibilities that come with wearing the white coat. We are proud to see them take this next step in their careers.”
At the medical school, each class of students develops as a group one of the most important aspects of the ceremony: a set of guiding principles that are recited in unison and will continue with them throughout their careers.
“The white coat ceremony is the culmination of years of planning, dreaming, and hard work. The white coat itself is a symbol of the immense privilege we’re being granted to care for other human beings, so the ceremony represents our induction into a lifetime of dedication, learning, and unwavering commitment to the health and well-being of the communities we will serve,” said Karima Abutaleb, the Class of 2027 president. “It’s a powerful reminder of the profound responsibility we bear as future health care professionals and the impact we can make on the lives of those in need.”
Abutaleb led the students in affirming their pledge to the principles of curiosity, compassion, resilience, integrity, and humility.
“We’re very lucky to be part of a class that has a pretty cohesive idea of our roles and responsibilities as future physicians, so our ideas about the traits we should embody also follow closely,” Abutaleb said.
The keynote speaker at the white coat ceremony was Frank Clark, a psychiatrist and former faculty member who now practices in South Carolina. Clark is also a prolific poet, whose publications include a children’s book called “Positively Haiku,” shows children the power words have to encourage, challenge, and heal. He told the medical students to be mindful to not fill their white coats with the “weights” of comparison. Instead, they should weigh them down with positive affirmations that will be cathartic for their journeys ahead.
“The significance of humanism when it comes to medicine and patient care is remembering the importance of practicing humility. This includes taking in consideration a patient’s lived experience which is often different from our own,” Clark said. “Patients are more likely to disclose the intimate details of their lives when they have an environment that encourages trust, integrity, and vulnerability.”
The first White Coat Ceremony was held at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York in 1993, supported by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation. The purpose of the ceremony is to clarify for students, before their entrance into the medical community, that a physician’s responsibility is both to take care of patients and to care for patients.
The VTCSOM white coat ceremony was supported in part by a grant from the Gold Foundation and for several years, while Virginia Tech alumnus and physician Richard Wardrop has donated the cost of the white coats for new students.
“This truly is a meaningful early step for our students in their medical careers,” said Aubrey Knight, senior dean for student affairs. “It is important that we show them the impact they will have on their communities and also how their communities will impact them.”
The Class of 2027 students will wear their white coats throughout their medical education. At the end of their second year, the class will convene for the student clinician’s ceremony before embarking on clinical rotations. The students will again read their guiding principles and recite the Hippocratic Oath to reaffirm their commitment to a humanistic approach to patient care.
“Our guiding principles will play a fundamental role in shaping the direction of our education, careers, and personal development. They serve as a moral compass, helping us make ethical decisions, prioritize our goals, and navigate the complexities of our medical careers and lives as a whole,” Abutaleb said. “They are a reminder of our ‘why,’ pushing us to strive for excellence while maintaining the highest standards of ethics, compassion, and professionalism.”
– Josh Meyer