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The first week of August is always momentous for new students at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Dental Medicine.
Newly arrived on campus, they meet the classmates they’ll spend the next four years with, along with the deans, advisers, and faculty members who will introduce them to the practice of medicine—what some say is one of the most challenging and fulfilling of professions.
The new students become acquainted with some of the critical skills they’ll need to master as physicians and dentists. They begin exploring the best ways of communicating with patients, solving ethical dilemmas, and building supportive, collaborative teams. Then, at week’s end, in a ceremony attended by friends and families, they formally don the white coats that are a symbol of their chosen profession.
“I’ve never wanted to do anything else,” said first-year MD student Josie Wilson during her first week. “I knew it would be a hard career, but there is nothing else that comes close. For me, practicing medicine is the ultimate form of empathy.”
Wilson said she was feeling a lot of curiosity and an eagerness to get to know a little bit of the stories behind all the new faces around her. Although she said the first-week experience was a little overwhelming, she had no doubts that she was in the right place.
As the week began, George Q. Daley, dean of HMS, welcomed the new students and made a commitment to support them on their journey to becoming the best doctors they can be, a message that was repeated often by other deans, advisers, faculty, and staff members.
Daley congratulated the entering class on having the persistence and conviction necessary to gain acceptance into Harvard during the past two-and-a-half years of the COVID-19 pandemic, and he reassured them that despite the challenges they may face, they possess all they need to achieve their goals.
“Let me assure you that if you remain focused on what you came here to do—to discover what it means to be a good doctor, to absorb the latest in biomedical science, and to cultivate effective leadership skills—you will go far,” Daley said.
In the MD program, 163 students matriculated in the class of 2026, including 68 men, 92 women and three people with different gender identities.
Twenty percent of the entering class are members of groups underrepresented in medicine, including Black or African American, Mexican American, Native American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and Other Hispanic. Twenty-one students identified themselves as LGBTQ. Matriculating students hail from 36 U.S. states, plus Brazil, Canada, Mexico, and New Zealand.
Within this class, 135 students are enrolled in the HMS Pathways curriculum, which incorporates early clinical experience and advanced clinical and student-tailored science courses, as well as collaborative, case-based pedagogy.
Twenty-eight students are enrolled in the Health Sciences and Technology program, a collaboration between Harvard University, HMS, and MIT focused on translational medical science and engineering.
Many of the students will earn an additional advanced degree while completing their medical studies, including 13 who are enrolled in the Harvard MD-PhD program.
Among the 35 matriculating students in the DMD program are 14 men and 21 women. Twenty-five percent of the class are members of groups underrepresented in medicine, including Black or African American, Hispanic, Other Hispanic, Other Spanish, Puerto Rican, and South American.
Two members of the entering HSDM class identified themselves as LGBTQ. Matriculating dental students hail from 18 U.S. states, plus Brazil, China, South Africa, Turkey, and Uruguay.
“I hope you will make the most of your education here and the great opportunities that lie ahead,” said William Giannobile, HSDM dean. “Today is the start of an amazing journey that will shape you into the health care providers, researchers, policymakers, and leaders you will become.”
Daley and Giannobile were joined at the welcome event by many of the decanal and faculty leaders of the medical and dental education programs and by student leaders from the second, third, and fourth years of the MD and DMD programs.
From student to doctor
Coursework for the students’ first week was designed to give them a shared fundamental understanding of key concepts that will be important in their future careers.
Katherine Miller, HMS assistant professor of medicine at Cambridge Health Alliance and course director for the Introduction to the Profession course, said that means asking the students to think about such questions as what do we mean when we talk about health equity and what are some ways to meaningfully engage in advocacy and activism as a student.
The students also had the opportunity to explore the culturally, socially, and economically diverse communities in neighborhoods around their new Boston campus, experiences designed to help them think about how factors outside a person’s clinical profile might determine the kind of health care and support they need.
One of the first week’s classes focused on professionalism in medicine.
“Students come into the class thinking you’re going to tell them to cut their hair and wear a tie,” Miller said. “But it’s about encouraging them to think about what professionalism in medicine means, and how it’s different from what they’ve experienced up until now in their careers.”
Miller said one of the biggest transitions in medical education in recent years has been a shift from the individualistic, sometimes competitive mindset of a single student to the “other-focused,” collaborative mindset that doctors now need to be effective.
How a student does on a test in college impacts their grades, and maybe their chances of going to medical school, Miller said, but how students perform on a test in medical school can affect their ability to successfully care for patients in the future.
Through a combination of classroom work, group projects, peer-to-peer conversation and independent reflection, the students are encouraged to build their own ideas about what is professional, she said.
The goal is to get them to think for themselves about how things like the clothes they wear, the ethical decisions they make, and their behavior on social media might influence their patients.
As part of joining the HMS community, each entering class composes an oath—a promise they make to themselves, their teachers, and their future patients about how they will approach learning while they are in medical and dental school.
Miller offered some guiding questions, inviting all who wanted to participate in writing the oath to take part, then identifying a few team leaders for the project before encouraging the students to organize themselves.
The entire class recites the oath together during the Friday White Coat Ceremony.
Meet the patients
After being fitted for their white coats and posing for their first class portraits, the students participated in their first patient clinic early in the week.
Edward Hundert, HMS dean for medical education, introduced the students to patient Barry Nelson and his primary care physician of 13 years, Alex Gonzalez, an HMS assistant professor of medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Students also met patient advocate and Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program board member Sarah Reid and Jim O’Connell, an HMS assistant professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and president of BHCHP, where he and Reid have worked together for more than a decade.
Patients and doctors discussed their clinical journeys together, their relationships with one another and with the rest of the health care system, and then discussed some of the elements outside medicine that have played a role in their doctor-patient relationships.
Nelson, a cancer survivor and patient advocate, highlighted the importance of his religious faith in his commitment to fighting cancer, navigating various treatments, and finding a spot in a clinical trial that ultimately made him one of the first lung cancer patients to receive immunotherapy, he said.
In addition to the clinical and scientific aspects involved in caring for Nelson, Gonzalez noted that it was also important for him, as a physician, to keep in mind that Nelson was a gay Black man, a father, and a member of a community, and that all of those aspects of Nelson’s identity, together, played a role in Nelson’s health and treatment decisions.
Reid, a transgender woman, shared the story of her traumatic childhood, her transition, and her experiences of homelessness. She also talked about how she has worked with O’Connell to help improve care for trans people and for others who experience homelessness.
To care for people who are struggling, Reid told the students, it’s crucial to be able to see a bit of yourself in them, to acknowledge their humanity, and to listen to their stories.
“The most important thing anyone has ever said to me is I believe you,” Reid said, emphasizing the importance of a trusting collaboration between doctors and patients.
Hundert also emphasized that it was important for doctors to “unlearn the rules of polite society” that encourage them to avoid awkward questions.
“Any question you ask, if it is asked with sincerity because you think it might be relevant to their health, is OK,” Hundert said. “As long as you bring an attitude of respect, curiosity, and caring you’ll always do what’s best for your patient.”
The students then had the opportunity to ask Nelson, Gonzalez, Reid, and O’Connell about points of potential friction in their doctor-patient relationships, about how to build strong communication, and about the challenges of rebuilding trust in a health care system or in a physician once it has been lost.
Welcoming new colleagues
Outside the patient clinic, Fidencio Saldaña, HMS dean for students, noted that this year’s incoming students are bringing a broad range of diverse experiences, a sophisticated understanding of health, science, medicine, and dentistry, and an incredible amount of energy to the HMS and HSDM community.
“Every year, this week gives us renewed hope for the future,” Saldaña said. “For me, the white coat is a symbol of our commitment to our patients and a wonderful way to welcome these students, our new colleagues in this very fulfilling profession.”
The week culminated with a traditional White Coat Ceremony which can be viewed on the HMS YouTube channel.