Today I want to talk about the short white coat.
If you go to the hospital, you will be treated by a vast array of people in white coats.
Perhaps you are not paying attention to the length of the coat, but the length of the coat denotes a person’s position in the hierarchy or food chain of the hospital.
Full MDs traditionally wear long white coats. Medical students traditionally wear short white coats. Depending on the hospital, interns usually wear short white coats, but in some hospitals they wear long white coats.
Every now and then an intern who gets too big for their britches will show up in a long white coat, much to the dismay of some MDs. It has even happened that a medical student has done that.
And some full MDs have had a bird. As in: “I have paid my dues and earned my right to wear my long white coat, so who does this young upstart think he is, wearing a long white coat?” You’d be amazed, senior physicians get upset over something so mundane, but some do.
There have been a few teaching hospitals where they put everybody (including medical students) in long white coats. That move didn’t sit well with some of the senior physicians.
My favorite, however, is Massachusetts General Hospital, where it is the tradition for everybody, EVERYBODY, to wear a short white coat. This is to symbolize that doctors are learners for life. To wit: there is nothing you should wear that would convey the arrogant message that you have learned all there is to learn, and you cannot learn more.
In fact, a doctor from that hospital wore his short coat to Beth Israel Deaconess, and was complimented by a colleague because he was symbolizing a doctor was always a student.
This is a valuable lesson.
No matter what discipline we study and work, there is always more to learn. We are always students, and the minute we stop being students we have closed our minds.
Mastery should be a moving target: an ideal within our reach but ever out of our grasp. We should never get to a point where we, because of our level of achievement or knowledge, believe there is nothing more to learn, or more dangerously, that we cannot ever be wrong.
In whatever we do, and whatever we wear to do it, we should always be wearing the short white coat, real or symbolic.
More on this here; it is an old article on this from 2007