Near the end of their fourth term, walking to the beat of inspiring songs they’ve chosen together, Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) students at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) take the stage. As a group, they recite the Hippocratic Oath for physical therapists. Then faculty members help each student, one by one, don a short white lab coat as a symbol of their readiness to enter the clinical world.
Once they are wearing their coats, the students each receive a pin with the USAHS crest. A person chosen by the student—a parent, significant other, or friend—has the honor of fastening the pin. “The white coat is a symbol of purity, professionalism, and clinical knowledge,” explains Cherie Peters-Brinkerhoff, PT, EDD, MPT, MHA, C/NDT, director of the DPT program on USAHS’ San Marcos campus. “The pin is a statement that you are from the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences.” The ceremony marks the end of the cohort’s period of classroom learning, and the beginning of their clinical rotations. It’s a rite of passage into the clinical realm.
What are White Coat Ceremonies and Why are they Significant?
A Meaningful Tradition
Physicians began wearing the white lab coat in the late nineteenth century to symbolize the profession’s disavowal of snake oil remedies, and the growing importance of sound scientific principles and research.
In 1993, Dr. Arnold P. Gold organized the first full-fledged white coat ceremony at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. The tradition rapidly spread to other medical schools and to schools educating other healthcare professionals who wear the white lab coat. The first USAHS campus to adopt this tradition was our founding campus in St. Augustine. After the San Marcos campus opened in 2007, Dr. Peters-Brinkerhoff had the privilege of attending the ceremony for the first DPT cohort. Now, thanks to our three start dates per year, a new cohort matures every trimester—so the ceremony is performed every term on all USAHS campuses.
It’s Not Graduation
“The point is to recognize the hard work the students have put in for the first four terms in their didactic coursework and hands-on simulations before they move into their clinical rotations,” says Dr. Peters-Brinkerhoff. “It’s not graduation. It’s a time for students to reflect on their professional journey so far: what they have learned and how they have grown.”
She continues, “PT students start out saying they want to help people. Now they gain a new understanding of what that means. You can see this transformation. During their first internship, students learn the meaning of professionalism. They grow their level of knowledge and maturity, and they take on a different bearing. The students find more value in having their clinical knowledge at their fingertips, versus needing books or the internet to search for the answers. As the students gain confidence, the trust between the PT and the patient develops more quickly.”
As she tells students during the ceremony, “This uncertain clinical world will test your knowledge, your will, and your confidence. And it will be so enriching. So exciting. It will no doubt fuel your incentive to learn more and be more.”
The largest PT school in the United States, the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers a hands-on Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. Practice with mock and real patients in our state-of-the-art simulation centers and learn anatomy with our high-tech tools. Prepare for clinical practice with a wide range of patients, as well as advanced roles in research, practice leadership, and policymaking. Residential and Flex (weekend-focused) tracks available.
 Andre Picard, “Why do physicians wear lab coats?” Globe and Mail, updated April 30, 2018: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health/why-do-physicians-wear-white-lab-coats/article4384866/