In the story of a doctor’s career, the white-coat ceremony is prologue. Taking place during a medical student’s first days on campus, the event is a rite of passage that welcomes future physicians into the noblest of professions.

AMA welcomes new med students

On Aug. 19, the AMA joined clinical and educational leaders for a virtual white coat ceremony welcoming medical students to the profession.

The nation’s COVID-19 pandemic, however, isn’t sensitive to celebration, and white-coat ceremonies are no exception. Faced with limitations on large gatherings, medical schools are delaying or moving the ceremonies to the digital space.

“As faculty, we feel renewed at least twice a year,” said Tonya Fancher, MD, MPH, the associate dean for workforce innovation and community engagement at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine (UC Davis). “One is the induction ceremony and the second is at graduation. That reminds all of us why we do this job. I think we miss the in-person part of that a little bit, but we created opportunities for faculty to share a welcome with the students.” Taking place Aug. 19 at 7 p.m. CT, the AMA’s Virtual White Coat Ceremony will recognize and celebrate the nation’s next generation of medical students. A one-of-a-kind event featuring some of the leading voices in medicine, the event will be broadcast on the AMA’s YouTube channel.

As their training begins, first-year medical students are either not stepping on campus at all or doing so in a very limited fashion. At UC Davis, new medical students are on campus twice a week, wearing personal protective equipment, for small-group anatomy labs. The rest of their learning has moved online.

With so much of medical training going online, the pandemic was no time to stand on ceremony. In a traditional version of the event, students recite a pledge to the field—most frequently the Hippocratic oath—and are bestowed a short white coat by faculty members. Often, family and friends are in attendance.

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For UC Davis, moving this year’s white-coat ceremony online offered new opportunity. Instead of faculty helping students put their white coats on, family members were called on as stand-ins while the new medical students videoconferenced the tradition. It also allowed for a display of the diversity of UC Davis’ class—a video of new students saying their medical student pledge in 16 languages. 

“You can say the word diversity over and over, and show pictures of people who look different over and over, but to have students express themselves in all these languages is very powerful,” said Darolyn Striley, manager of UC Davis’ office of student development. “You can hear the diversity of the class.”

At Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, each incoming classes’ white-coat ceremony is planned by a committee made up of second-year medical students. That group surveyed incoming medical students who voted to delay the white-coat ceremony until larger gatherings were permitted so family members could attend. “They wanted this very official momentous event to be done in-person in front of family and peers, even if it meant delaying the event,” said Carol A. Terregino, MD, senior associate dean for education and academic affairs at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “They really wanted that ceremonial donning of a coat” with a faculty member’s help to be done in person. “Obviously, you can’t delay discussion of humanism and professionalism, and you really can’t delay the recitation of the Hippocratic oath.” 

Without a traditional white-coat ceremony to serve as an entryway into medicine, Rutgers opted for a week of related events. That included students reciting the Hippocratic oath while wearing the white coat with a faculty member outdoors. It also included remotely delivered talks on humanism and professionalism from faculty members.

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Loved ones were invited to take part in the remote portions of the ceremony. They also contributed by sending in baby pictures for a slideshow and writing the new medical students letters expressing what it means to them to watch their loved one prepare to enter the profession of medicine.

“It’s very emotional day,” said Dr. Terregino. “Things are different this year. Hopefully in the spring we’ll have the chance to do a formal ceremony in front of their families or maybe we’ll do a double white-coat ceremony [for two classes of students] next summer.”

The AMA has curated a selection of resources to help residents, medical students and faculty during the COVID-19 pandemic manage the shifting timelines, cancellations and adjustments to testing, rotations and other events at this time.

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