The Message of the White Coat

First-year student Christian Jakobsen is cloaked by his mother and father, Glenn and Kwan Jakobsen, who are both graduates of the NYITCOM-Long Island Class of 1993. (Credit: NYITCOM)

First-year student Christian Jakobsen is cloaked by his mother and father, Glenn and Kwan Jakobsen, who are both graduates of the NYITCOM-Long Island Class of 1993. (Credit: NYITCOM)

By Stan Bergman, Chairman of the Board and CEO, Henry Schein, Inc.

In the healthcare professions, a white coat means a lot more than proof someone is studying or practicing medicine, dentistry or nursing.

A white coat should mean, as it does to the nonprofit Arnold P. Gold Foundation, that the healthcare professional wearing the garment is a champion of humanism in healthcare, which the foundation defines as “compassionate, collaborative, and scientifically excellent care.”

This notion of humanism in healthcare is particularly relevant now as the White Coat Ceremony season comes to a close. This is the time of year when more than 50,000 medical, dental, nursing and other healthcare professional students receive their first white coats, a symbol of their educational achievement and commitment to providing empathic care to their patients.

Almost 30 years ago, the Gold Foundation established the White Coat Ceremony to help instill the importance of humanism in care from the very start of a clinician’s training. Each coat is adorned with the Gold Foundation’s golden Mobius loop pin to symbolize the bond of trust, respect, and communication connecting healthcare professionals to their patients.

The White Coat Ceremony underscores the sacred human connection between clinician and patient, which is so critical to good healthcare. Our shared belief in the importance of that special clinician – patient relationship, and our long commitment to caring for healthcare professionals so they can care for their patients, is why Henry Schein joined the Gold Foundation’s Corporate Council in 2017, which we currently chair. This group of six leading healthcare companies (including BD, CVS Health, IBM Watson Health, Quest Diagnostics, and Siemens Healthineers) supports the work and mission of the Gold Foundation and strive to be industry leaders of humanism in healthcare.

White Coat Ceremonies hold a special place in my heart as the husband of a pulmonologist. In fact, this fall, I had the tremendous honor of addressing the NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine class of 2025 during their White Coat Ceremony.

As I watched each NYIT student don their first white coat, signifying their entrance into the medical profession, I was deeply moved. I thought about the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and challenged the importance of that bond.

Even before the pandemic, healthcare practitioners experienced significant stress and high rates of depression. The pandemic has greatly amplified the strain on clinicians’ mental health as they risk their own health and endure the enormous stress of caring for and, too often, losing patients.

The pandemic has also shined a bright light on inequities in health care and the impact of structural racism on access to care. We must re-double our efforts to ensure that equitable, compassionate, and high-quality healthcare is the standard for every human being, no matter the color of their skin, their gender, their ethnicity, or their sexual orientation.

At the same time, the pandemic has made the world even more aware of the importance of the human connection in care. While we might not be able to see each other’s mouth behind the mask that we must wear to protect ourselves and each other, we can pay even more attention to the words, the tone, the collaboration, and the care embedded in the conversation.

Today, as the evolving COVID variants continue to threaten our country and our world, it is the strong, trust-based relationship between healthcare practitioner and patient that will foster open dialogue, enable patients to get answers to their questions, and ultimately increase vaccinations to lead us out of this dark time.

As I watched the young medical students cross the stage at NYIT to receive their first white coats, knowing they would provide years of compassionate care to thousands of patients, I felt hopeful for our future.

Stan Bergman is Chairman of the Board and CEO of Henry Schein, Inc., a Fortune 500® company and a member of the Gold Corporate Council. Henry Schein is the world’s largest provider of healthcare products and services to office-based dental, animal health, and medical practitioners.