White Coat Wisdom: Students Encouraged to Bring Art and Science of Medicine to Patient Bedside

By April Wilkerson 
Writer, OU College of Medicine

As members of the Class of 2019 prepared to receive their first white coats, they listened to words of wisdom from their faculty members and Oklahoma physician leaders about the rewarding but challenging profession of medicine. 

Each year, before they attend their first classroom lecture, first-year medical students take part in the White Coat Ceremony while hundreds of their family and friends watch and listen. This year’s keynote speaker, Timothy Mapstone, M.D., chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at the OU College of Medicine, advised students to use their intellect to learn the scientific basis of medicine, to understand its weaknesses and to expand what is known. But he also urged them to develop the important skill of listening.

OU College of Medicine faculty members cloak first-year medical students with their first white coats during the annual White Coat Ceremony, held during a week of orientation activities.

This fall, students unveiled their 15th edition of Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine, a humanities journal that draws submissions from around the world by those who seek to give their experiences – often, their encounters with the realm of medicine – a creative manifestation. Students who choose to participate carry out the work of the journal from its beginning to end, from the call for submissions, to the design work, to distribution.

“As a medical student, I distinctly remember the chair of medicine … telling us that 75 percent of the time, one can make a diagnosis solely on the basis of the patient’s history – that is to say by listening to them,” Mapstone said. “Listening well provides you with information about your patient’s social situation and other bits of data that can impact treatment. … It is the beginning of a very strong bond – the therapeutic relationship between you and another person. Their implied trust is a significant honor and calls you to a significant responsibility. This responsibility begins the moment you don your white coat.”

Medicine is changing and physicians are increasingly called upon to be more efficient and cost-effective, Mapstone said. He advised students to weather those challenges by keeping the needs of patients and their families at the forefront of what they do each day. He also encouraged students to read novels and poetry, to watch plays, to listen to music and to view art.

Timothy Mapstone, M.D., chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at the OU College of Medicine, encourages students to become good listeners while they are learning the science of medicine. Mapstone was the featured speaker for this year’s White Coat Ceremony.

“This helps you to understand the diversity of the human experience and the breadth of human hopes and fears,” he said. “Medicine is difficult and properly caring for patients can be a challenge … but by staying humanly connected to your patients, you will overcome the day-to-day test of our profession. There is little doubt that we are in a rapidly changing environment. Science and technology push us forward, and society demands that we leave no one behind, but does not always provide the proper resources for these tasks. You will be charged to manage these conflicting forces for the benefit of us all and for your patients. Not easy, but a doable charge.”


Students also heard from Woody Jenkins, M.D., a Stillwater physician who serves as the president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association. In that role, Jenkins said he has traveled the state talking to physicians about the issues they face in their practices and communities. To each, he emphasizes that health care is a calling, not simply a job.


“Job satisfaction comes from knowing that what we do is profound and has a purpose; there should be great pride associated with providing clinical care,” Jenkins said. “The care that we provide has lasting impact on our patients, their families and the community. Our choices and our actions change lives.”

Jenkins, too, encouraged the future generation of physicians to listen to their patients, but also to look for ways to give them moments of happiness. “Happy patients get well faster,” he said. “Accepting illness and change can be difficult. People are searching for reassurance that their doctor will listen and care and help them take a spoonful of medicine and accept what they cannot change. Your attitude toward illness will reflect in your patients.”