Dean’s Speech: MBBS White Coat Ceremony 2023

09 September 2023

School principals, teachers, parents, fellow colleagues, and above all students, ladies and gentlemen,

I am most delighted to officiate this White Coat Ceremony for you, students of the Class of 2029!  First, I would like to congratulate each of you on arriving at this milestone in your career. As you walk across this stage to receive your white coat today, your journey in medicine will begin. In the words of Sir William Osler, ‘The practice of medicine is an art, not a trade; a calling, not a business.’ I am proud that you have chosen to answer that call. 

Your early memory of a doctor may be the person in the white coat. Patients expect to be treated in hospitals or clinics by an individual wearing white.  But you may be surprised to learn that prior to the late 19th century doctors wore not white, but black garb.  Thomas Eakins, a widely acknowledged realist artist, created what is arguably one of America's greatest paintings in 1875 entitled ‘The Gross Clinic’. It depicts a scene from Jefferson Medical College's amphitheatre in Philadelphia showing Dr Samuel Gross and his assistants – all dressed in formal black attire – performing a leg operation on a young man.  Around that same time, the idea of antisepsis was taking hold in Europe. It was Joseph Lister's contribution that moved medicine from home remedies and quackery to the realm of bioscience. And reproducible results helped researchers better understand how to prevent bacterial contamination. Remarkably, this progression was documented in another Eakins' masterpiece in 1889 entitled ‘The Agnew Clinic’. Dr David Hayes Agnew can be seen in a white smock, with assistants also wearing white, suggesting that a new sense of cleanliness pervaded the environment. The patient is swathed in white sheets and the nurse also has a white cap. 

When medicine became the truly scientific enterprise as we know now, the white coat continued as the symbol of medical profession and respect as advance upon advance firmly established the patient-doctor relationship as a beneficial encounter. Many patients now view the white coat as a ‘cloak of compassion’ and a symbol of the caring and hope they expect to receive from their doctors. Just as importantly, the white coat symbolises the other critical part of students' medical education – that is a standard of professionalism and caring and emblem of the trust they must earn from patients. So, when you don your white coat today, I hope you to take a moment to reflect on your aspiration to become a doctor. It is a lifelong commitment to the service of humanity, something we call professionalism; it also means embracing every opportunity to make a meaningful impact on the lives of your patients and the community, both within and beyond the clinical setting, something we call humanism. For me, humanism is to make sure that the patients in front of us knows that they are the most important thing on a doctor’s mind.  The foundation of medicine is built on pillars of compassion, empathy, and professionalism. These values will be your compass as you navigate the complex and ever-changing landscape of healthcare.

As we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, we must not forget that our profession and the world are facing multiple health challenges. These range from outbreaks of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases like Covid-19 and cholera, increasing reports of drug-resistant pathogens, growing rates of non-communicable diseases to the health impacts of environmental pollution and climate change and multiple humanitarian crises. We, as healthcare professionals, will encounter million patients, each with their own unique stories or struggles. Your duty as tomorrow’s doctors extends far beyond the walls of the hospital or clinic, and it is crucial to understand that taking care of patients is not limited to diagnosing and treating diseases. It is about recognising the humanity in each person you encounter, and understanding that their wellness and wellbeing are influenced by factors that may not be immediately visible. And in fact, it is the spirit of humanities that connects us to our patients, it is the understanding of individuals for whom we care that brings us joy, and it is connecting with their personal experiences that makes our work so rewarding. 

Meanwhile, always listen to your patients with an open mind and an open heart, and remember that your role is not only to provide medical care, but also to offer comfort and reassurance especially in times of uncertainty. Be mindful of the power dynamics that can exist between doctors and patients. You can use your eye to let patients know you are with them, you understand them and you care about them, and strive to create an environment where patients feel empowered and comfortable to share their concerns and make informed decisions about their care, and encourage them to get routine preventive care like medical and dental check-ups and vaccinations, as well as early detection such as cancer screenings, so as to reduce chances of getting a chronic condition while improve their quality of life. After all, prevention is always better than cure. 

Moreover, we must also acknowledge the paramount importance of mental health and its connection to the overall wellbeing. Mental health issues can manifest in many ways, and it is our responsibility to be attentive to the signs and symptoms, and to provide appropriate care and referrals when necessary. A holistic approach to healthcare, one that considers the interplay among physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing, is critical to the practice of medicine. Today’s ceremony will give you a sense of identity, but more importantly, the commitment to be humble and always focus on the people in their care.

Addressing health challenges is not easy. I believe your journey in medicine will be filled with moments of joy and deep satisfaction, but also with many challenges, disappointments or even failures. When I was a medical student, I was there too – I have been hit many times with bricks and sometimes boulders. So, an important reminder that I have for you is to always take good care of yourselves, too! Please speak up and remember that you will never walk alone. Our Teaching & Learning team will guide you through your studies and all of us will keep our doors open. And your academic advisors, Enrichment Year advisors, clinical tutors and more will all make sure that you are well prepared as you step into different stages of your studies. 

Allow me to share this great song by Gerry and the Pacemakers:

'When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don't be afraid of the dark
At the end of a storm
There's a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
For your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone’

Another important thing in health care that I would like to remind you is teamwork and always regard your colleagues as brothers and sisters. Respecting your fellow colleagues is a vital part of professionalism. The practice of medicine is a collaborative endeavour now more than ever. If the common purpose is to do the best for our patients and to ensure the best possible outcomes, then collegiality promotes harmony within the team, and encourages open communication and consensus, and the sharing of skills and experience. With a collaborative mindset in place, teams become natural opportunities for integration, innovation and quality improvement. 

Finally, our curriculum at HKUMed is exciting, and I have no doubt that each of you will thrive in it. You will be well prepared for every challenge along the way. I look forward to working with each of you as you progress through medical school. Congratulations again, Class of 2029 and a very warm welcome to our HKUMed family!