Lessons in Humility

Class of 2018 encouraged and cautioned on White Coat Day

A student in the Francis Weld Peabody Society receives his new white coat. Image: Steve Lipofsky

Seize opportunities to improve health care, advance biomedical science and relieve suffering, but never forget the importance of remaining humble and making human connections with patients and colleagues: Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Dental Medicine faculty shared these words of advice with the Class of 2018 on White Coat Day.

It is an exceptional time to enter the field of medicine with the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, HMS Dean Jeffrey S. Flier told a crowd that included the 199 first-year HMS and HSDM students.

“Knowledge is exploding in fields such as regenerative biology and genomics, and bioinformatics is growing at a staggering rate. We’re finally beginning to understand how genes interact with the environment both to keep people healthy and to cause illness. This work is bringing us to the cusp of new treatments for major diseases that afflict the world,” he said.

However, he added, major barriers remain. “Many treatments won’t reach the patients who should benefit from them in the U.S. and abroad. I challenge you to think about this problem,” he said.

Flier, who was recovering from orthopedic surgery, delivered his remarks by video.

HSDM Dean Bruce Donoff voiced his concerns about an aging population, a shortage of primary care providers and economic threats to the doctor-patient relationship.

Successfully navigating these issues and making the most of advances in fields as diverse as molecular biology, technology, materials science and public health policy requires not only that students appreciate the connection between oral health and overall health, but also that they merge clinical care with basic science, he said.

“It’s been said that the clinician needs to know everything that is known and the scientist seeks to learn all that is unknown. Addressing pressing human needs relating to life, health and the relief of suffering requires a blend,” said Donoff. “I look forward to following your growth and achievements.”

This year’s HMS class includes 80 women and 84 men from a pool of 6,614 applicants. They hail from 33 states, 16 countries other than the United States and 66 schools.

The HSDM class includes 19 women and 16 men from a pool of 1,007 applicants. They represent 20 states, two countries outside the United States and 31 schools.

Before the students separated into their five academic societies to don their white coats for the first time, HMS Dean for Medical Education Jules Dienstag addressed the significance of the occasion.

By accepting the white coat, students join a “tradition of service that goes back to the beginning of recorded time,” said Dienstag. “You are about to experience a profound change in your identity and even of your worldview.”

Although the white coat can symbolize authority, Dienstag urged students not to let it separate them from their humanity, their loved ones or the consideration of their own health.

“It should not put you on a pedestal. It should not shroud you in a cloak of arrogance, robbing you of compassion and empathy,” he said. “Patients will see the white coat as a source of knowledge and technical skill, but many will not fully extend their trust to you until they get some sense of the humanity and individuality that lie beneath the white coat.”

Other speakers reinforced the tone of excitement yet tempered it with a reminder to remain grounded and compassionate.

“Accept the patient on their own terms,” said Nancy Oriol, HMS dean for students. That allows doctor and patient to enter what she referred to as a place of trust that facilitates healing.

“Listen with an open mind,” said Alvin Poussaint, HMS faculty associate dean for student affairs. “This is how you learn about your own biases.”

“Be very nice to your classmates,” said Sang Park, HSDM director of predoctoral education, to general laughter as she showed photographs of students practicing nerve blocks on one another.

Ed Hundert, president of the Aesculapian Club and incoming dean for medical education, told the story of the Greek god of medicine and healing for whom the alumni organization was named. Famous for his healing power, Aesclepius “started to lose touch” with his humility, even raising the dead until Zeus struck him down.

“There are many lessons we can learn from this,” Hundert said. “We are not gods, we are healers. Remember the healing power of touch.”

In case students felt intimidated by what they had heard during their introduction to HMS, Hundert offered reassurance: “It was during your upbringing, your childhood, your college years that you exhibited the qualities that will make you great doctors: your willingness to work hard, your intelligence, your commitment to others, your moral integrity and, I hope, your willingness to self-reflect as you go through this incredible journey with us.”

Hundert concluded by leading an ovation for Dienstag, who will be stepping down as dean for medical education in October.

The students adjourned to their societies. After receiving their new white coats, courtesy of the Aesculapian Club, the students walked to Brigham and Women’s Hospital for their first patient clinic. The day’s programming concluded with a first- and second-year student mixer.

A formal White Coat ceremony with the students and their families will be held on Aug. 28.


White Coat Day

Members of the HMS and HSDM Classes of 2020 accept their white coats as they prepare to embrace the challenges of medical school.

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