Background and Significance

The White Coat Ceremony is celebrating its 30th year in 2023! The very first White Coat Ceremony was held in 1993 at Columbia University, where Dr. Arnold P. Gold was a world-renowned pediatric neurologist and champion of human-centered care.

The Meaning of the Ceremony

Dr. Gold believed that reciting the Hippocratic Oath at graduation was far too late. He envisioned the White Coat Ceremony as a ritual to emphasize the importance of compassion in patient care at the start of medical training. After the first ceremony at Columbia, the Gold Foundation, led by Dr. Gold’s wife and the nonprofit’s first CEO, Dr. Sandra Gold, spread the White Coat Ceremony around the world.

A Rite of Passage

2010 NYU White Coat Ceremony

Intended for first year students in medical, nursing and physician assistant programs, the White Coat Ceremony is a rite of passage that often takes place during the initial days of orientation. It serves to welcome students to healthcare practice and to elevate the value of humanism as the core of healthcare. It provides a powerful emphasis on compassion in combination with scientific excellence.

The most important element of the ceremony is the oath that students take in front of family members, school leadership and their peers to acknowledge their central obligation of caring for the patient.

Individual schools decide what their ceremony will look like. But all ceremonies include an oath or pledge, speakers, and some way to commemorate the occasion — whether it is with the presentation of a white coat to each student or some other icon of medicine and healthcare, such as a stethoscope, a hand blessing, or other. Visit our Medical Ceremony Toolkit and Nursing Ceremony Toolkit for ideas and guidance in planning your ceremony.

Honoring the Tradition

This special exhibit installed at the William A. Neal Museum of the Health Sciences at West Virginia University highlights the long-standing tradition of the White Coat Ceremony at their school.

It features a customized coat donated by the School of Medicine Alumni Office, the Gold Foundation’s “Keeping Healthcare Human” alongside the WVU pin honoring the state of West Virginia, a class photo, sample program, and quotes about the impact of this ritual.

The White Coat Ceremony for Medical Schools

The first White Coat Ceremony led by the Gold Foundation took place in 1993 at the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, where Dr. Arnold Gold was a Professor of Clinical Neurology and Professor of Clinical Pediatrics. He noted that the existing practice of having students take the Hippocratic Oath at the end of their medical training occurred four years too late.

The Gold Foundation instituted the White Coat Ceremony as a way to emphasize humanism in medicine at the very start of medical education. Support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation helped advance the White Coat Ceremony far beyond Columbia. In just a few years, the ceremony was adopted by nearly every medical school in North America.

 “As an alumni of the very first White Coat Ceremony in 1993, I just wanted to express my deepest gratitude for your commitment and dedication to making humanism front and center at all medical schools in this country.”– Dr. Delphine Taylor, Columbia University

Visit our Medical White Coat Ceremony Toolkit for a virtual keynote address, downloadable program templates, and more.

The Pledge or Oath Ceremony for Nursing Schools

In 2014, recognizing the vital role nurses play in the healthcare team, the Gold Foundation partnered with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) to adapt this ceremony for Nursing. More than 450 schools of nursing have participated and the number continues to grow.

“When they read the oath together out loud, you feel the shift in the room.” – Najla S. McClain, ABSN Program Coordinator, Duke University School of Nursing

“Many students were awed by the seriousness of what they were about to undertake –their first day of clinical was the very next day.” – A nursing school faculty member on the significance of the ceremony

Visit our Nursing Ceremony Toolkit for resources tailored specifically for nursing programs, including a virtual keynote address, a video montage of inspiring photos, example ceremonies from nursing schools, examples of nursing oaths, and more.

A reminder to keep the human element in medicine

The Gold Foundation provides Keeping Healthcare Human lapel pins to medical, nursing (BSN degree and higher), and allied health students for White Coat Ceremonies and Pledge/Oath Ceremonies. The pins serve as a visual reminder to students that in order to deliver the best care to their patients, compassion and empathy must be the hallmark of their clinical practice.

The impact

Today, a White Coat Ceremony or similar ritual takes has taken place at 99% of AAMC-accredited schools of medicine in the United States, medical schools in 19 other countries, over 450 schools of nursing and in several physician assistant programs.