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September 20, 2016

White Coat Ceremony formalizes medical calling for School of Medicine Class of 2020

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  • Medical School
Members of the School of Medicine Class of 2020 attend annual ceremony

For the first time, on Friday, Sept. 16, 150 members of the School of Medicine Class of 2020 were cloaked with freshly pressed white coats—signifying the importance of both scientific excellence and compassionate care—at the annual White Coat Ceremony, as family, friends and faculty cheered.

Watch a video of the White Coat Ceremony

“You will, undoubtedly, wear many white coats during your professional career, but each one will symbolize your professionalism, the virtue of your medical calling, the trust that defines the physician-patient covenant, and the recognition that it is a privilege for us to care for our patients, not a privilege for our patients to be cared for by us,” said Chancellor Michael F. Collins, welcoming the class into the UMMS community. “To wear this white coat means you have chosen to dedicate your lives to the needs of others.”

School of Medicine Dean Terence R. Flotte, MD, the Celia and Isaac Haidak Professor of Medical Education, provost and executive deputy chancellor, cautioned the class that as they wear their white coats, they must not fall into the “trap of empathy overload.”

“The way some physicians deal with this stress is to begin unconsciously to attribute some of the blame for our patient’s problems to them . . . to become more selective in our empathy. What studies of unconscious bias have shown is that we are more likely to do that with people who do not look like ourselves,” Dean Flotte said. He noted, for example, some families dealing with their loved ones’ opioid addictions say they feel “ostracized, dismissed, put aside,” by their physicians.

“I would submit that all of our patients are worthy of empathy. And that is the real challenge of the white coat. When we put in on, we must do so with insight into our own implicit biases, and we must combat those in every way that we can, focusing always on being what our patients need us to be in that moment,” Flotte said.

Keynote speaker John K. Zawacki, MD, professor of medicine and the 2015 recipient of the Chancellor’s Medal for Distinguished Clinical Excellence, encouraged students not to forget why they got into medicine.

“You are here because you answered the call,” Dr. Zawacki said. “The call is that still small voice in the very essence of our being that says, ‘Be for somebody. Care about them. Listen to them. Be of service to them. Be for them.’ That’s what brought you here. And I want to congratulate you for doing that.”

Zawacki credited the founders of UMass Medical School for paving the way for the Class of 2020.

“We stand on the shoulders of all these people,” he said, praising Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness at UMMS; the late Arthur M. Pappas, MD, founding chair of orthopedics; and the late Massachusetts Sen. Daniel J. Foley of Worcester, who, in his role as senate president, was instrumental in creating the medical school.

The White Coat Ceremony is a modern tradition initiated in 1993 by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation for Humanism in Medicine at the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, which most U.S. medical schools now celebrate. First held at UMass Medical School in 2010, the White Coat Ceremony has become a meaningful and joyous event for School of Medicine students and their families, and the faculty mentors.

At the ceremony, each student is assisted in donning the white coat by their Learning Community House mentor and a significant person of their choosing. Donated by members of the recently graduated SOM Class of 2016 in a symbolic “passing of the torch” to the next generation of medical students, each coat is embroidered with the student’s name; in the pocket, each student will find a slip of paper with the name of the student who donated their coat. They will also find a card with the name of their faculty mentors. Both are reminders that they are not alone on this challenging journey.

The ceremony closed with the students reciting the Oath of Maimonides.

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