Answering Your White Coat Ceremony FAQs

Doctors applauding white coat ceremony

The white coat ceremony is an important milestone in a healthcare life. Though it’s only been around for a quarter of a century, a white coat ceremony now takes place at nearly every medical school in the United States, as well as a few select types of other graduate schools. But what exactly does the ceremony involve, and what does it symbolize? Below, we answer the most frequently asked questions about white coat ceremonies.

What happens at a white coat ceremony?

At a white coat ceremony, first-year students don their white lab coats, listen to speakers and swear an oath (usually the Hippocratic Oath) to take care of patients and uphold ethical codes. The specifics of the ceremony vary from school to school, but usually involve presenting the students with some token to commemorate the occasion, often a white medical coat (though occasionally, other healthcare equipment, such as a stethoscope, may be given instead). Family members, faculty and school leaders all attend the ceremony to celebrate the beginning of the new students’ journey and observe their commitments to the profession.

Female medical student wears white coat during ceremony

What is a medical school white coat ceremony?

Medical schools are the originators of the white coat ceremony (more information on the history of this ritual can be found at the end). Medical schools use the ceremony to signify the start of a medical student’s road to becoming a full physician. The ceremony originally began as a way to humanize medical school education and emphasize that patient care begins on day one, which is why many schools hold their ceremony during orientation— though a few don’t host theirs until the end of the first year of classes in the spring.

Do nurses have a white coat ceremony?

Yes! Beginning in 2014, the Gold Foundation partnered with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing to adopt a White Coat Ceremony for Nursing. More than 310 schools in 49 states now host nursing white coat ceremonies, and more schools are being added each year. Since nurses serve alongside doctors and hold the same commitment to patients, instituting a white coat ceremony for nurses creates a greater sense of community and acknowledges the great patient work that nurses do.

Please note that the nursing white coat ceremony should not be confused with capping and pinning ceremonies. White coat ceremonies are held at the beginning of school, while nursing school students receive nursing pins at the end of their final year (though they may not have officially passed board exams by the time capping and pinning takes place).

What is a white coat ceremony for pharmacy?

Pharmacy students also have a white coat ceremony. In fact, they’re technically doctors themselves, as they receive a Doctorate of Pharmacy (abbreviated as PharmD) upon graduating from pharmacy school. However, pharmacists usually don’t call themselves “doctor” to avoid being confused with physicians. That being said, most pharmacy schools host a white coat ceremony to signal the beginning of the students’ journey into the healthcare field, much like medical schools.

Do PAs get white coats?

Within the past few years, white coat ceremonies have also become popular for physician’s assistants. While they are supervised by doctors, physician’s assistants work closely with patients and perform many tasks, including conducting physical examinations, diagnosing illness, developing treatment strategies, ordering and interpreting lab tests, performing various medical procedures, assisting with surgical operations and even ordering prescriptions in some states. To acknowledge all the work they do and their importance to the healthcare team, schools are now holding white coats for future physician’s assistants graduates.

What does the white coat symbolize?

The classic attire of doctors the world over, the white coat represents authority, professionalism, integrity and a commitment to helping patients. Since only a few medical professionals wear white lab coats, donning one also sets the wearer apart and indicates their position. In fact, the wearing of white coats began around the 1800s, when trained surgeons and physicians began wearing them to distinguish themselves from quack doctors who did not have training or practice evidence-based medicine.

Many schools give students short white coats (rather than the full lab coat) for their white coat ceremony. The short coat symbolizes that the students are at the beginning of their journey to become doctors, nurses, physician’s assistants and pharmacists. Students obtain the full long white physicians coat after they graduate.

How important is the white coat ceremony?

The white coat ceremony is a significant milestone in healthcare students’ journeys, often akin to graduation, even though it comes early on. At schools that hold their ceremonies just prior to orientation, the white coat ceremony may also be the first chance that students have to meet their peers and fellow classmates. Some schools make attendance at the ceremony mandatory, so if you’re asking this question because you’re thinking of skipping out, check the school’s policy first before you make any alternative plans.

Medical student clothes shopping

What do you wear to a white coat ceremony?

Nicer business casual is usually a safe bet (so no jeans, tennis shoes, etc.). Some ceremonies are held outside, so double check the locations and weather before finalizing your outfit choices. If your ceremony is outside, you’ll want to make extra sure that your clothes are breathable and absorb sweat well. Looking at photos from recent white coat ceremonies at your school will give you a good idea of what past students have worn. Choose darker colors if you really want the white coat to pop in photos.

Men usually wear dress pants and shoes with a button-down shirt and tie to the white coat ceremony. However, most skip the suit jacket because the jackets tend to make you sweat and create weird lumps underneath the white lab coat, which does not photograph well.

Women usually wear dresses or a nice blouse and dress pants. Medicine is a conservative field, so keep necklines on the higher side–no less than two to three inches above the clavicle. Also watch your hemlines: Most medical coats hit women at the mid- to upper thigh, so you want to make sure your skirt extends below that. A hemline a few inches above the knee at most is a good minimum. If your ceremony is outside and you’ll have to walk on grass, wear flats or wedges to keep heels from sinking into the ground, which can ruin your shoes.

Everyone should try on their graduation outfit beforehand to make sure that it will look good under the white coat. Some outfits that look perfectly good on their own turn unflattering once they’re covered in a unisex white coat design. Double check that ties lie flat, hemlines aren’t too short, etc. before the big day.

Who will “coat” me?

Many schools designate presenters, usually faculty and other school leaders, to bestow the coats on students. However, some schools may allow you to choose your coater, usually a professor or a close family member. By tradition, students are only cloaked by someone of their own disciplines. So, physicians coat future MDs, nurses coat MSN students and so on.

Where do I get my white lab coat?

Most schools will order your white coat in advance of the ceremony and bestow it to you during the ritual. If your school doesn’t give you the white coat for some reason— say, they bestow stethoscopes instead— you will need to order your own white coat. If you need to get yourself a coat, we especially love Medelita lab coats for their fluid barrier and antimicrobial properties. They come in both men’s and women’s cuts with slim, petite and classic fits. No matter what coat you order or where you order it from, give it plenty of time to arrive before the ceremony!

How long will the ceremony take?

Depending on the size of the class, the ceremony itself is usually pretty short, between an hour and an hour and a half. A reception usually follows directly after the ceremony, so plan for several hours total. Usually only light appetizers are available, so eat beforehand if you will get hungry.

Will there be a professional photographer there?

Most schools do have a professional photographer taking photos of each student as they cross the stage, much like college graduation ceremonies. Students will later be sent the link to download or buy photos. There will also be the opportunity to take your own pictures with friends and family after the reception.

Medical student during white coat ceremony taking Hippocratic oath

What oath will I swear?

Most schools use a modernized version of the Hippocratic Oath, which was originally written more than 2,000 years ago. This revised 1964 version, written by Louis Lasagna, Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University, is popular at white coat ceremonies today:

    “I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
    I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
    I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.
    I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug.
    I will not be ashamed to say ‘I know not,’ nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient's recovery.
    I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
    I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person's family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.
    I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.
    I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.
    If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.”

When did the white coat ceremony start?

While white coats have been a part of the medical profession for a couple hundred years, the ceremony itself has only been around for about 25 years. The first white coat ceremony was held in 1993, when Dr. Arnold Gold, a Professor of Clinical Neurology and Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, decided that students should take the Hippocratic Oath at the beginning of medical school rather than at the end. To emphasize humanism in medicine at the very start of medical education, the Gold Foundation instituted the first White Coat Ceremony, held at Columbia.

Shortly thereafter, the Gold Foundation partnered with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to spread the concept to other schools. Now, 99 percent of AAMC-accredited schools of medicine in the United States host a white coat ceremony or a similar ritual. Several physician’s assistant programs as well as 310 schools of nursing also host ceremonies, as do medical schools in 19 other countries. The Gold Foundation supplies “Keeping Healthcare Human” lapel pins to students at all ceremonies, which “serve as a visual reminder to students that in order to deliver the best care to their patients, compassion and empathy must be the hallmark of their clinical practice.” The foundation also provides grants to schools to help host their first White Coat Ceremony, if they don’t host one already.

We hope this answers your questions about the white coat ceremony. While we can’t tell you what your school’s white coat ceremony policies are, if you need help ordering a white lab coat yourself, our customer support team is always happy to assist you.