But the question of whether empathy can be taught—and, in particular, whether a white-coat ceremony is a good means for promoting that virtue—is a matter of some debate.I must say, the thought of everyone seeing each others' posterior sides as they paraded across the stage at such a ceremony did make me smile.
Judah Goldberg, a young doctor at Chilton Memorial Hospital in New Jersey raises an intriguing paradox. He asks how the white coat can bring doctors closer to the subjective experience of patients when, as an icon of the profession, it is meant to isolate and distinguish them from the lay community.
"To the extent that empathy can be taught through a ritual," Dr. Goldberg told me, "a hospital gown, the common garb of human frailty, would be more fitting than a distancing white coat."
I think that humility as a doctor comes with life experiences: it is difficult to have empathy for a young mother bringing her child into the ER at 2am until you've had a sick child. It is difficult to empathize with a grieving widow until you've lost a parent or loved one. It is difficult to comprehend the anxiety of surgery, until you've been under the knife. It is difficult to comprehend cancer, until you have been so diagnosed.
Once these experiences happen to a doctor, that doctor is forever changed on how they approach patients. These are life's great lessons for doctors. And depite these noble efforts to impart empathy to doctors using this symbolic gesture, no white coat will ever impart humility better than real life.