It is natural for medical students to feel long white coat envy

As a current fourth year medical student, one of the main things I look forward to after I graduate is trading in my white coat. For medical students everywhere, it’s a huge sign of accomplishment to shed the short coat and don the long one. It means you are now a real doctor.

Medical students are required to wear short white coats that might reach to their fingertips, if they’re lucky. Mine comes down to just below my wrists. Residents are privileged to wear long white coats that reach all the way down to their thighs, and are even equipped with slits in the sides allowing access to your pants pockets. The long white coat is a status symbol and a sign of achievement.

To me, the short white coat resembles many things. The most obvious, is that it instantly identifies you as a medical student. Anyone can spot a medical student across the hospital with just a glance, only by their attire. Patients recognize you as soon as you enter their room and have to give consent for you to examine them, ask them questions, or perform a procedure on them. Nurses recognize you as you search for charts, wander the halls of the hospital, or eat in the cafeteria. The short white coat provokes a sense of camaraderie and understanding as you spot a fellow medical student in the hall. It resembles the knowledge base and experience of the medical student. It is a daily reminder of your current status, as you are constantly striving and reaching for the next level in your education. It literally becomes a weight on your shoulders, holding as many books, notes, tools, and pens as you can stand. It is somewhat of a security blanket, as the amount of liability and responsibility you carry is short as well.

For the almost two years I have been on clinical rotations I have had long white coat envy. I think it is natural for medical students to feel this way, especially as the graduation date approaches. But the worst part about the short white coat is that it makes me feel inferior. I have a tendency to feel like I don’t belong. I feel like I don’t have the right to be talking to this patient, to be examining this patient, to be asking questions to this patient, and to be taking up this patient’s time. It means I have no decision making power, that my opinions are not very valuable, and my presence is a nuisance. In essence, the short white coat syndrome.

Granted, I don’t feel that way all the time and have felt that way less and less as my education has progressed. But, I would be lying to say that the short white coat syndrome doesn’t ever creep up into my psyche. It makes itself known during the first day of a new rotation, during periods of humbleness or humiliation, or when a patient refuses to let me participate in their care. It’s a reminder of where I am and where I am going, but it would be impossible to get there without it. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud to wear it everyday, but I won’t be sad when I am able to trade it in for an upgraded model.

“DrUKDO” is a medical student who blogs at Internalize Medicine

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