Med students don white coats to mark start of professional journey

(Edmonton) When first-year University of Alberta medical student Leeor Eliyahu donned her new white lab coat, she found a message in the pocket from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry Alumni Association. The note proudly welcomed her to the faculty—a connection to all of those medical school graduates who have gone before her.

It was an emotional moment for Eliyahu and the other members of the centennial class of the U of A’s medical school Sept. 24, as faculty members presented them with the white coats that mark the beginning of their lifelong journeys as physicians.

“All across North America this month, thousands and thousands of medical students are getting their first white coats and becoming officially, in many respects, members of the caring community,” said D. Douglas Miller, dean of medicine and dentistry. “It is a symbol of the medical profession. Today we are trying to link that symbol to the beliefs of physicians all across the world who carry out the healing arts and wear the white coat as a symbol of the respect they have for their profession and for their patients.”

Education for a new era of medicine

Miller explained that medical students enter the profession with a short clerk’s white coat and by graduation will wear a longer one, demonstrating their growing skills, accomplishment, responsibility, professionalism and wisdom.

Keynote speaker and former dean Lorne Tyrrell spoke with emotion about the remarkable privilege of moving from the classroom to the bedside to get to know patients, and the tremendous changes that have occurred over the course of his own career. He explained that in his research specialty of infectious diseases, an average of one new disease per year has been seen over the past 40 years of his practice, including HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and SARS.

“What you learn in medical school will only give you a very good start,” Tyrrell advised. “My practice today is totally different from what I learned in medical school, but medical school gave me a solid basis for lifelong learning. I envy you as I look forward to what medicine will bring in the next 40 to 50 years. You are entering an era that is truly remarkable. We are seeing the convergence of the sciences … that will lead to better understanding of disease, and new and better therapies.”

Giving program established to support students

“Today we put white coats on 165 new medical students,” said Miller. “The great majority of those students will stay and practise in the province of Alberta. This is an extremely important day for our province, as well as for our faculty and the university.”

The white coat reminds every doctor of the sacred trust of the patient-physician relationship. But that coat comes with a significant price tag. Today the cost of obtaining an MD degree is about $60,000—a staggering amount of debt for a young student to shoulder.

To encourage future physicians, the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry has established the White Coat Giving Program and Recognition Society. Through this program, a donation of $250 will congratulate and welcome a first-year student to the medical profession with the gift of a lab coat at the annual white coat ceremony. The donation will also contribute to a bursary to give those students access to financial aid in their subsequent years of study.

Eliyahu brimmed with pride and excitement in her white coat after the ceremony as she cuddled her twin 20-month-old girls and talked about what the coat means to her. “It symbolizes everything that I have been working toward and everything that is to come. It means this is the beginning. It’s exciting to get here and start new challenges and new journeys. It’s pretty emotional.”

View photos from the white coat ceremony