This September I was honored to address the incoming freshman dental and dental hygiene students at their "White Coat" ceremony. The following are the attempts at words of wisdom by an aging alumnus:
Welcome to dental school. A White Coat Ceremony; this is nice, and something entirely new to me. Many, many years ago when I was a freshman dental student, we weren't welcomed so much as harassed and terrorized by a remnant of faculty who were harassed and terrorized in their freshman year and thought it a sound policy to be passed on, something on the order of Marine boot camp or a fraternity hazing. Only the faculty wore white coats. In our pre-clinic and clinical courses, we wore "gowns " in our designated class color. Mine was green, and so was I. Freshman year in dental school was quite a transition; we were no longer civilians but acolytes on the way to the ultimate admission into the profession of dentistry.
I have a good friend a couple years younger than I am who shared the story of his first day in dental school. He had spent the previous two days hitchhiking back from some great misadventures in Montana. He showed up for orientation with one hour of sleep and a three-day beard. He was clad in dirty blue jeans and a stained t-shirt. A professor grabbed him by the neck and hollered, "Young man, just where do you think you are?" My buddy blinked twice and managed to croak out his reply: "College?"
Thankfully things have changed for the better. The last few years I have had the privilege of working with the senior dental students in their ethics course. I am so impressed with the professionalism and maturity of the men and women who are entering the art, science, and profession of dentistry. In my class there were only four women. Now the classes are evenly divided male and female as it should be.
The philosophy of the faculty has changed. Before, the theory seemed to be "you won't be a doctor until you've earned it and now get down and give me 20 surfaces of amalgam!"
Now as freshmen, each of you is given a white coat, a symbol that you are welcomed into our profession. We want you to feel that we are colleagues. Yes, you are our students, but we are more than teachers; we are mentors too. We want you to know that your formation and ultimate success as dentists and hygienists is truly our hearts' desire. We want this for you and we wish this for you because we love our profession and know that the only way it will grow and prosper is if we pass our knowledge and experience on to the next generation.
Well, now you have your white coat, given freely in the hopes and prayers that you will grow into it. Dental school isn't "Hogwarts"; your white coat isn't an enchanted robe with a pocket for your personal magic wand - and how often I've longed for a magic wand to get me out of difficult situations. A magic wand didn't save me, but the great education I got at this dental school sure did.
Your white coat is a reminder that some day you will truly be a doctor, and in saying "doctor" I include the hygiene students. Now you may think of the word "doctor" as someone who heals, and you would be right, but the original meaning of the word means "teacher" from the Latin: docere: to teach. If you are ever to become a successful and effective dental professional you will spend as much time teaching your patients as you do actively treating them, and here's why. You do not have the "right" to practice dentistry. After successful completion of your studies you will have the privilege of practicing dentistry, just like you don't have the right to wear your white coat, you have been given the privilege of wearing it as a symbol of the profession's faith in you.
Faith is very important. When your patients come to you, they come in faith; they have faith in you and your skill, knowledge, and talents as a dental professional. Never let them down. Of course, we all have our failures; that is natural, but get in the habit of spending the time to get to know your patients. Your patients are people just like you, with hopes and fears and expectations. Take the time to relax and find out just what these are and do your best to accommodate them within reason.
Sadly, many dentists and hygienists end up hating to go to work because they have fallen into the trap of production, marketing, and practice management at the expense of their humanity and relationships with the patients who come trustingly to them as their doctor, as their hygienist.
We are in the people business. Your white coat is an ancient symbol that you are in the people business. Never forget that and you and your patients will be just fine.
May God bless you as you take your first steps on the amazing journey of your professional life.
*Dr. Stein is Executive Editor of Northwest Dentistry. He is a general dentist in private practice in Aitkin, Minn., AitkinDent@AOL.com.