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When the white coat comes off: Is “medical student” a full-time profession?

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

P1000878In our transition to medical school as first-year medical students, one significant part of our learning has been adopting the dress of the medical profession. Twice a week, in our first year Practice of Medicine course, we wear professional attire and don our white coats, the famous symbol of the medical profession. As we learn how to interview and interact with patients, the white coats encourage us to fully embrace our new professional roles as physicians in training.

At first, the strong symbolism of the white coat made me highly aware of the different roles and personas that we occupy as medical students. If the white coat symbolized my role as a professional, wearing a T-shirt and shorts to my developmental biology class symbolized something decidedly more student-like. In many ways, being able to take off the white coat and hang it up for the day was a convenient way to demarcate our different selves: our professional persona on the one hand, and our “normal” (and more familiar) role as students on the other.

Over time, however, I began to feel a shift in terms of what that my “normal” self was. As I spent more and more time practicing clinical skills that involved helping people to feel comfortable, respected, and cared for, it felt only natural to adopt these qualities in my daily life. After all, after devoting a great deal of effort doing the little things to help make the lives of our patients better, did it really make sense to stop putting in the same effort when interacting with the rest of the world, just because the white coat and badge came off? Is our role as physicians only to help the patients who are sitting in front of us, or should we be thinking about our impact on the well-being of everybody we interact with, from our faculty and staff to the person answering the customer service complaint line?

In some ways, this idea of adopting the professional persona full-time is a scary one. Work-life balance is one of the most discussed concerns among medical students, and many (if not all) of us have fears of our work dominating our lives and keeping us from important things in our lives such as family and friends. Because of this, I have a feeling that the separation that the symbolic white coat offers will become more and more important for us as our careers progress and we become more immersed in our work lives.

That being said, I also acknowledge that, as medical students, the professional persona can help us to consider our daily impact on the world around us, which just might influence the health and happiness of a few extra people each day. For now, then, I’m willing to admit that perhaps there is a little more value to taking our professional mindset home with us than I first realized.

Nathaniel Fleming is a first-year medical student and a native Oregonian. His interests include health policy and clinical research. 

Photo courtesy of Nathaniel Fleming

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