“The white coat and stethoscope have become the symbols of the healer. However during the pandemic, the uniform has changed to include masks, face shields, isolation gowns, and gloves. The uniform has changed, but the clinician has not.”
Yale School of Medicine’s (YSM) Physician Associate (PA) Program Director Alexandria Garino, PhD, PA-C, shared these remarks at the August 27, 2021 White Coat Ceremony for the PA Class of 2023. While the 40 members of the class, speakers, and PA faculty and staff gathered in person, masked, for the ceremony in Mary S. Harkness Auditorium, families, friends, alumni, and donors watched on Zoom because of pandemic restrictions.
Garino shared that the PA Program’s faculty and staff had had long discussions about the significance of a White Coat Ceremony, leading to their decision that it was important to bring the class together for the event. She told the students that the ceremony is a milestone in their professional formation. “It marks the point in time when you move from only learning in the classroom to now learning from the clinical team and from the patient. It is a reminder that we clinicians are privileged to care for patients. Patients let us into their lives at a time when they are most vulnerable and afraid, in pain, and they confide in us their deepest fears. That is an honor that should not go unrecognized. We needed to physically bring you together in one place to mark that occasion.”
Garino noted that this year’s White Coat Ceremony also was significant because 2021 marks the program’s 50th anniversary. “The pandemic interfered with our celebration plans, but we commemorate the program’s significant history in celebrations like the one today and in the recognition of the many accomplishments of our alumni.”
While the limited attendance and masks mirrored characteristics of last year’s ceremony, Garino pointed to a significant change, which scientific advances—including the development of COVID-19 vaccines—made possible. The previous year, students had to put on their own white coats, breaking with the tradition of second-year students helping incoming students don the coats. This year, Associate Program Director David Brissette, MMSc, PA-C, helped each student put on their white coat, as Director of Didactic Education Elizabeth Roessler, MMSc, PA-C, read their names one-by-one. As Garino explained to the students, “the gesture of helping the new student on with their white coat symbolizes our commitment to your professional development.”
In addition to receiving their white coat, each member of the class of 2023 received a stethoscope. In what has become a tradition, the stethoscopes were donated by more than 50 alumni, who also shared words of advice with the students that were enclosed with each stethoscope.
In her remarks, Dean Nancy J. Brown, MD, noted that the class of 2023 was the most diverse class in the 50 years of the program at YSM: almost one quarter of the class are members of groups that are underrepresented in medicine, one third are male, and students come from 19 states as well as Australia. After sharing the statistics, Brown encouraged the students to learn each other’s stories over the next two years, as well as to learn the stories of their patients, adding that getting to know their patients as individuals will enrich their careers.
After discussing the history of the PA profession and YSM’s PA program, Brown told the students that PAs “are particularly important to the practice of medicine today.” She said COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on health disparities and the problems of access to health care, and PAs play a critical role in providing access to high quality health care.
Brown, like other speakers, spoke about the meaning of the white coat. She discussed how it represents scientific curiosity, as well as professionalism, emphasizing the importance of medical professionals being committed to respecting the dignity of individual patients.
Keynote speaker Anita Dunn ’98, MS, PA-C, encouraged the students to wear their white coat with honor—and to respect it, keeping it cleaned and ironed. She explained that doing so will demonstrate respect for process, patients, and others on their team.
Reflecting on when the students will first engage with patients in the clinical setting, Dunn, who has precepted many YSM PA students during her 19 years as a hospitalist in the Yale New Haven Health System, shared advice about what patients want: information, clarification of the information they already have, reassurance, guidance, and, when things do not go well, comfort. She added that preceptors will be looking for students who are eager, kind, and self -aware, and who develop effective learning strategies.
The ceremony concluded with Assistant Professor Courtney Fankhanel ’08, MMSc, PA-C, leading the students on a recitation of the PA Oath. Fankhanel told the students, “We’re all very excited to have you start this journey with us at Yale.”