White Coat Oath

WVSOM alumnus shares importance of white coat, physician compassion during ceremony

Life has a way of taking you where you need to be. That was the message that Andy Tanner, D.O., a 1999 WVSOM graduate, shared with first-year students during the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine’s (WVSOM) annual Convocation and White Coat Ceremony on Aug. 28.

The ceremony is one of the most momentous events in students’ medical school journeys and marks the beginning of the Class of 2025’s commitment to the osteopathic medical profession and a life of health care service.

For medical professionals and medical students, the white coat has great symbolism. 

“One of the things I learned was that back in the 1800s, physicians actually wore black coats, which signified their solemn and serious work. Back then, there weren’t a whole lot of treatments for patients and many patients didn’t seek the care of a physician until the end of life,” Tanner said in his keynote speech, providing historical context to the white coat. “In the late 1800s, when physicians figured out the importance of antiseptics, they needed a rebranding and along came the white coat, which became a symbol of cleanliness and purity. Today, we think of the White Coat Ceremony as your induction and rite of passage into the medical community and a symbol of professionalism and your commitment to the values of being a physician — humanism, compassion, leadership and a devotion to the well-being of others.”

WVSOM President James W. Nemitz, Ph.D., told students the white coat comes with responsibilities and obligations to the community, as well as pride in representing WVSOM.

“The members of the Class of 2025 now enter into this rich tradition and will become a part of WVSOM’s legacy, a legacy that includes being one of the finest medical schools in the nation and the leader in graduating physicians who practice in rural America,” he said.

Tanner knows firsthand what it’s like to be committed to medicine. He shared a story about remaining humble after he was initially turned down from medical school.

“I was one of the last few people admitted to my class and I know my life could have been much different, but there was a path, and I was open to it and I believed in myself and my abilities,” the family medicine physician said. “I want all of you to believe in yourself, your abilities and find the silver lining in all that you do and in all of the people you meet along the way. I always tell the medical students and residents I work with that every patient has something to teach you; you just must be open to it and be aware. I learn from patients every day.”

Tanner also told students to be open to the idea that they are at WVSOM for a reason.

“Life brought us here and you never know where it might take you. You might find yourself speaking at the White Coat Ceremony in 20 years,” he said.

“It takes a lot of hard work and determination to get into medical school, and I thank you for your dedication and willingness to become a physician,” Tanner said. “As you know, the work is not easy and there will be sacrifices along the way, but I can tell you from my perspective it’s the best career and one of the most rewarding jobs you can do.”

And as physicians, Tanner said, he hopes students who are just beginning their medical journey will later remember the people who shaped their education.

“Remember you’ve got to give back. You’ve got to pay it forward,” he said. “It is in giving that we receive.”

Tanner is board certified in family medicine and addiction medicine. He completed a family medicine residency at Charleston Area Medical Center (CAMC) and joined the faculty of the West Virginia University School of Medicine Charleston Division in 2002. He has been program director of the CAMC Family Medicine Residency Program since 2007. In 2019, he was named Family Doctor of the Year by the West Virginia Academy of Family Physicians.

The White Coat Ceremony also included brief messages from WVSOM Board of Governors Chair Robert Holstein, D.O., and WVSOM Alumni Association President Robert Olexo, D.O.

As part of the ceremony, the Class of 2025 received the medication Narcan to carry with them in case they encounter an overdose victim in a nonmedical setting. Narcan is a brand of naloxone, a drug that can block the effects of opioids and potentially prevent the death of someone who is experiencing an overdose.

Earlier in the week, first-year students received the mandatory training to carry the life-saving medication, which included how to recognize an opioid overdose, know when Narcan is appropriate and understand the responsibilities that come with administering the medication.

Linda Boyd, D.O., WVSOM’s vice president for academic affairs and dean, said WVSOM may be the only school in West Virginia and only the second medical school in the nation to provide naloxone to incoming students during a White Coat Ceremony.

“All of us come to medical school wanting to help and serve others. One of the ways we are doing that is by giving each of you a box of naloxone in your white coat pocket,” she told students. “Opioid abuse is a nationwide crisis with more than 90,000 deaths last year. It’s a sad fact that West Virginia leads the nation in opioid deaths. To help combat this epidemic, all of our first-year students have been recently trained in the use of naloxone. They are now equipped to provide West Virginia with 214 more people ready to help in the case of an emergency.”

The Convocation and White Coat Ceremony coincides with WVSOM’s Alumni Weekend hosted by the WVSOM Alumni Association. Graduates return to campus for continuing medical education and other events including an outdoor concert, barbecue and reunion dinner. The WVSOM Alumni Association provides the white coats for students, and the WVSOM Foundation provides personalized embroidery on the coats.