6 Remarkable Quotes From Medical School Commencement Speeches

Whether you're about to put on a white coat for the first time or have worked in healthcare for 50 years, the following excerpts pack an inspirational punch and remind people why they chose medicine and healthcare.

Each quote below is linked to the full text of the speech, all of which were delivered from 2008 onward by politicians, scientists, surgeons, writers and government officials.

1. "No one talks to you about money in medical school, or how decisions are really made. That may be because we've not thought carefully about what we really believe about money and how decisions should be made. But as you look across the spectrum of healthcare in the United States — across the almost threefold difference in the costs of care — you come to realize that we are witnessing a battle for the soul of American medicine. And as you become doctors today, I want you to know that you are our hope for how this battle will play out.

As you head into training and then further onward into practice, you will be allowed into people's lives in a way that no one else in society is permitted. You will see amazing things. And you will develop extraordinary abilities.

Along the way, you will sometimes feel worn down and your cynicism taking over. But resist. Look for those in your community who are making healthcare better, safer, and less costly. Pay attention to them. Learn how they do it. And join with them."

— Atul Gawande, MD, surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and writer for The New Yorker, at the University of Chicago Medical School's 2009 commencement.

2. "You see, today you take a big step into power. With your white coat and your Latin, with your anatomy lessons and your stethoscope, you enter today a life of new and vast privilege. You may not notice your power at first. You will not always feel powerful or privileged — not when you are filling out endless billing forms and swallowing requirements and struggling through hard days of too many tasks.

But this will be true: In return for your years of learning and your dedication to a life of service and your willingness to take an oath to that duty, society will give you access and rights that it gives to no one else. Society will allow you to hear secrets from frightened human beings that they are too scared to tell anyone else. Society will permit you to use drugs and instruments that can do great harm as well as great good, and that in the hands of others would be weapons. Society will give you special titles and spaces of privilege, as if you were priests. Society will let you build walls and write rules."  

— Donald Berwick, MD, former acting administrator of CMS and current gubernatorial candidate in Massachusetts, at Yale Medical School's 2010 graduation ceremony.

3. "When the genome was sequenced in 2000 for the first time in my presidency — and we spent a lot of your tax money to finish that — as a non-scientist, the most interesting thing to me was the immediate conclusion that genetically, all human genomes were 99.9 percent the same.

And then Gregg Feero said, no, that's not true. We are only 99.4 percent the same. Now, with 3 million genomes that's a significant number, right? Half of 1 percent scientifically. But to a politician it doesn't sound like much.

And I do think that if we look around the graduating class at every single difference you can see, everything obvious to your eye from gender to skin color to eye color to size and shape, everything noticeable is the result of something less than one-tenth and a half percent of our genome makeup, but otherwise we are the same. Essentially, confirming all the teachings of all the great witnesses from time and memorial — that what we have in common is more important than our interests and differences.

You live in a world where you will only be able to appreciate the differences if we embrace what we have in common and act on it. I hope you will do that. If you do, you are going to have a great ride."

— President Bill Clinton at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine 2010 commencement in New York City.

4. "If I were to ask members of this audience what were the most important advances in medicine during the 20th century, most would make a similar list: X-rays, for both diagnosis and treatment; antibiotics, which have largely eradicated bacterial disease; cell culture, which led to the polio vaccine; noninvasive imaging, especially magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, for early detection of cancer and other conditions; genetic engineering, which is the basis of most new medicines; the list could go on.

These medical advances have one thing in common: They were all discoveries made in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, with no idea of any application, no purpose in the prevention or cure of disease. The lesson of the past is counterintuitive: To solve a difficult problem in medicine, don't study it directly, but rather pursue a curiosity about nature and the rest will follow. Do basic research."

— Roger Kornberg, PhD, professor of structural biology at Stanford (Calif.) School of Medicine, at the school's 2008 commencement.

5. "Patients do not put their trust in machines or devices. They put their trust in you. You have already spent years studying, training, doing research and seeing patients. And you likely have many more years of education before you.

But please remember that the more skilled you become, the more specialized you become, and the more dependent on technology you become — the easier it becomes to lose your humanity, forget your compassion, and ignore your instincts.

I have one last piece of advice: Never, ever lose your moral compass."

— Margaret Hamburg, MD, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, at Stanford School of Medicine's 2012 graduation ceremony.

6. "So here we are — in a situation where people, many of whom see themselves as consumers rather than patients, want more from us as healthcare providers and administrators, in fact they demand it. And we're increasingly constrained by systems that are proven to be inefficient and less effective than other countries. I once called it a 'nonsystem' in a health policy paper, and an astute review wrote back this quip: 'If you think it's not a system, try to change it.'

Here is where you come in, or at least I hope you do. The world needs for America to wake up and reinvent itself, taking into account its proud history of creativity and innovation, and developing a better way to improve health. And if this approach ignores the fundamental nature of human caring at the gut level, we may develop a more efficient system, but it won't be better."

— Robert Califf, MD, director of Duke Translational Medicine Institute and professor of cardiology with Duke School of Medicine, at Duke School of Nursing's 2010 commencement


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