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Humanism or Professionalism? The White Coat Ceremony and Medical Education

Goldberg, Judah L. MD, MA

Academic Medicine:
doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31817eba30

In this article, the author challenges the widely held assumption that humanism and professionalism are necessarily complementary themes in medical education. He argues that humanism and professionalism are two very different value systems with different rationales, different goals, and different agendas. Whereas humanism is a universal, egalitarian ideology, professionalism represents the parochial, culturally determined practices of a particular professional group that may or may not conform to lay expectations.

Distinguishing professionalism from humanism is crucial to understanding the divergent attitudes of providers and lay persons with regard to health care delivery and physician behavior. Moreover, it highlights the tension that medical students experience as they are tacitly asked to leave behind their lay, humanistic values and embrace a new professional identity, a transition that the common blurring of humanism and professionalism fails to recognize. In this context, the Arnold P. Gold Foundation's widely acclaimed White Coat Ceremony for entering medical students may actually be inhibiting, rather than encouraging, the genuine growth of humanism in medicine.

Author Information

Dr. Goldberg is a second-year resident, Department of Emergency Medicine, New York Hospital Queens, New York, New York.

Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. Goldberg, Department of Emergency Medicine, New York Hospital Queens, 56-45 Main Street, Flushing, NY, 11355; telephone: (718) 661-7305; fax (718) 661-7976; e-mail: (

© 2008 Association of American Medical Colleges