The ritual is believed to have originated twenty years ago, in 1989, at the acclaimed University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine. Its purpose was to mark the transition between the initial science course curriculum and the beginning of their clinical and direct patient care training. It is a formal ceremony in which medical student’s don – for the first time – the traditional white lab coat that physicians have worn for more than a century. The primary elements in the White Coat Ceremony typically include: recognition of the students for completing pre-clinical studies, affirmation of a commitment to medical ethics, actual “cloaking” of the students in white lab coats, and recitation of the Hippocratic Oath. It is similar to a medical school graduation, in that parents and friends are encouraged to attend, in order to witness and recognize this important milestone.
From this modest beginning in 1989, the ceremony has evolved exponentially. Now, in addition to an ever increasing percentage of medical schools, the White Coat Ceremony is becoming a tradition at dental, podiatric, chiropractic, optometry, pharmacy, physical therapy, and veterinary schools throughout the United States – and the world. Of course, there are variations among the different types of schools consistent with their curriculum. In some specialties, the student’s clinical work occurs earlier in their training than is typically the case for medical school students, and thus, the timing of the White Coat Ceremony is altered. Most pharmacy students, for example, go through the ceremony at the end of their first year, while some chiropractic schools conduct the ceremony at the start of the first year. Regardless of when the ceremony occurs, it has become an important event symbolizing the induction of the student into their chosen healthcare career.
One aspect of the White Coat Ceremony – the white lab coat itself – has also evolved over the years. While many of the ubiquitous shapeless, often shabby white lab coats can still be spotted in daily use, recent interest in higher quality lab coats has increased. This is partly a result of the growing percentage of women in medical and clinical healthcare programs, and partly due to higher standards being set for appearance and cleanliness in the healthcare setting. The very best of the medical uniform companies have recognized this increasing need for quality lab coats and have introduced new styles that utilize stain-resistant performance fabrics – features uniquely suited for the environment in which they are worn. One particular uniform company, Medelita, has even tailored a line of unusually high-quality lab coats specifically for female physicians, clinicians and students of all medical specialties. Just as the significance of the White Coat Ceremony has grown, so has the interest among these schools in presenting students with lab coats that appropriately reflect the achievement being recognized, and the commitment to quality care they are pledging to provide to future patients.