Eastern Virginia Medical School held it’s “White Coat Retirement Ceremony“ recently. In photos from the event, graduating medical students are shown throwing their short white coats into a fire. I thought to myself, “what in the world is going on?”
When I was presented with my short white coat at the start of my first year of medical school, I was told that it was a sacred symbol of the medical profession and our commitment to the care of patients. I had a strong feeling of pride when I first wore it and felt, quite earnestly, that my white coat represented a duty to serve my patients in whatever way I was called.
Burning that symbol of service in celebration would be very odd. But of course, the white coat is not only a symbol of duty. A short white coat is a marker of a medical student’s subordinate role in the medical hierarchy. For many of these students, I suspect that burning it represents a celebration of moving up the ranks. A white coat also serves to separate us from our patients, highlighting the patient-provider divide. Burning it could be a statement about tearing down these walls and throwing oneself into the community. The white coat was originally adopted by physicians who wanted to identify themselves with science, felt to be the driver of progress in the late 19th century. Could burning a white coat be a bold declaration that basic science is no longer the principle advancer of human health?
EVMS posted a video of last year’s ceremony. In the YouTube description, they note that “Not unlike a flag that has seen it’s day of service, our students burn their coats in celebration of graduating and receiving the well earned long coat.”
This is a much more traditional explanation. The burning is meant to be a respectful ceremony, consistent with the coat as a symbol of pride in the profession. But our relationships with the white coat are far more complicated than this explanation suggests. The video of students celebrating as they throw their coats into the fire hints at the deep emotions they feel towards these symbols. Ceremonies for giving- or destroying- white coats, would do well to acknowledge more of this complexity.
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