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School of Medicine Class of 2024 Marks Start of Journey as Medical Professionals During White Coat Ceremony

The School of Medicine (SOM) Class of 2024 marked a traditional milestone on their journey to becoming physicians.

December 07, 2020
SOM Class of 2024 students donning their white coats for the first time.

At the White Coat Ceremony on November 29, the School of Medicine (SOM) Class of 2024 students officially donned their white coats for the first time and took an oath they had developed as a class, which included a commitment to compassionate patient care and inclusivity. Though the event this year was held mostly virtually, the SOM Office of Student Affairs went above and beyond to inject some normalcy into the event by holding ten separate, small and physically distant, gatherings during the month prior at which students could don their white coats in person and recite their oath as a group. Videos from each gathering were then combined into a virtual collage for the event, where, even with their masks on, one could see the joy and pride of students as they marked their transition from laypeople to medical professionals.

During all ten gatherings, the student also received a personal address by Jerry L. Nadler, M.D., MACP, FAHA, FACE, dean of the SOM.  “The white coat ceremony is very symbolic of the responsibility to the world and the opportunity that you uniquely have as future physicians of helping humanity, especially now when the wounds of health disparities and the difficulties many populations face in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as other diseases on an ongoing basis, has been brought to the forefront,” said Dr. Nadler. “Whether you go into research and potentially develop the next vaccine or treatment, into academic medicine, community medicine or private practice, you can make tremendous contributions.”

The White Coat Ceremony began in 1993 at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons by Arnold P. Gold, M.D., professor of clinical neurology and of clinical pediatrics, who believed that the existing practice of students taking the Hippocratic Oath at the end of their four years of medical training occurred four years too late and that the oath should instead take place at the start of medical education. New York Medical College (NYMC) has held white coat ceremonies annually since 2000.

“Viewing this ceremony should remind students each time they don their white coats of the reason they chose to be a physician and what is expected of them now and in the future,” said Jane Ponterio, M.D. ’81, senior associate dean for student affairs and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology, who served as master of ceremonies for the event. “The white coat sets upon your shoulders standards to follow on your journey to becoming a physician. It should never be seen as a weight but rather a privilege to uphold. The white coat is a symbol of your welcome to the profession and your humanism.”

As a central part of the ceremony, the oath that students swear is meant to acknowledge their obligation of caring for the patient. For the last few years, NYMC has allowed each student class the option of developing their own oath.

Throughout the ceremony, students also had the opportunity to hear from several speakers, including Vivek Murthy, M.D., the nineteenth surgeon general of the United States, who offered both congratulations and advice that emphasized the importance of their relationships—with their patients, their fellow physicians and their families and friends.

“Our relationships, it turns out, are the foundation on which we build everything else,” said Dr. Murthy. “Yet as essential as our connections are with one another, they are often the first to suffer in our fast-moving world where the pursuit of work and achievement often displace the time with family and friends. I say that as someone who for many years allowed training and work to distract me from the people who matter most, something I have worked hard to correct in recent years.”

“The most important qualities you need to be a healer are the ones you had even before you entered medical school – your ability to care deeply for others, your ability to listen with compassion, your ability to lead with love,” continued Dr. Murthy. “Despite what the world may tell you, you are enough. You don’t need to publish papers to be worthy. You don’t need to receive awards or ascend to powerful positions in order to be a good doctor. It is in our intrinsic ability to give and receive the love that we find our humanity and our true power to heal.”

“Your greatest teachers will be your patients,” said Edward C. Halperin, M.D., M.A., chancellor and chief executive officer. “Take a history from your patient’s own mouth and do a physical with your own hands. Don’t let computer electronic records seize from you the opportunity of learning from your patients. Medicine is fundamentally a social activity that takes place between two people and for the physician, it involves using all of your senses to get a full understanding of the patient’s illness. Remember illness fractures people’s humanity. If you are going to help repair that fractured humanity, then you need to listen and feel and experience the patient’s illness—that is true empathy.”

“Patients share with us their deepest anxieties and their fears and they count on us to help to heal them,” said Renee Garrick, M.D., vice dean and chief medical officer for Westchester Medical Center and professor of clinical medicine. “When they do this, they are not our customers, they are not our clients, they are our patients and I would ask each of you to stop and think before you think of a patient as a customer. A customer is what we are when are buying a pair of shoes or a car. When we are dealing with a patient, it’s something quite different. In fact, that patient-physician relationship is something we need to treasure and we need to understand that while becoming a physician and being a physician becomes commonplace for us it’s never ever commonplace for our patients.”

“Taking my oath for the first time felt incredibly powerful,” said Kelsey O’Hagen, SOM Class of 2022 and president of the SOM Student Senate. “It was the first time I felt the weight of what it means to be a doctor, to be responsible for the health of another. The white coat is a symbol of our profession and our responsibility. The responsibilities that the coat brings do not go on and off as our coat does. They stay with us forever. We recognize this in our oath, and we took charge of the fact that our actions both in and out of the white coat and in and out of the clinic represent our profession. Now more than ever our actions are being watched and we have to hold to that responsibility that much higher.”

Videos of SOM White Coat Ceremonies and SOM other events are available on the NYMC School of Medicine YouTube playlist