Scholarship Awardee's Passion for Patient Care Shines Through
After deciding to take a gap year between undergraduate and medical school, Caitlyn Gottwald was anxious that it might hinder her goal to become a physician. But she used that year to help strengthen her application through work experience, and in doing so, made an invaluable connection.
Now, Gottwald is a student at the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine—and the recipient of an Alumni Heritage Scholarship.
“Looking back, it was probably one of the best possible scenarios that could’ve played out for me,” Gottwald says. “I got to work with an extremely talented physician who taught me many things I couldn’t learn from a book, and who introduced me to a medical school that I may not have found on my own.”
That extremely talented physician was AUC alum Dr. Thomas McNiff (‘84). Gottwald met Dr. McNiff during her first week of work at the National Dizzy & Balance Center (NDBC), a clinic specializing in vestibular disorders and concussion treatment in Edina, MN.
“Dr. McNiff recognized my drive to become a physician, so he took me under his wing—answering any and all questions about his journey to becoming a provider, his experiences, bedside manner and technique, as well as general questions about medicine,” Gottwald says.
“It’s Important to Treat People as People”
Dr. McNiff had a nontraditional start to his medical career. Before entering medical school at AUC, he completed a physician’s assistant program and a program to become an open heart surgery pump technician. Waitlisted as an applicant at a few U.S. schools he applied to, Dr. McNiff chose to pursue his doctorate in France while enlisted in the U.S. Army. After much time spent transcribing class materials from French to English, he transferred to AUC.
After graduating, he completed a residency in family medicine and then worked as an emergency room physician for more than 20 years. Currently, he works as the medical director and a staff physician at NDBC, and also works through his own private practice where he travels between nursing homes.
Having had such a robust career, Dr. McNiff had plenty of experiences and guidance to share with Gottwald. But of all the insight she received from Dr. McNiff, Gottwald cites one point as particularly important: bedside manner.
“He taught me that with each patient, it’s important to individualize and tailor your approach based on their needs,” Gottwald says. “You need to appreciate that some patients just want to sit and have a conversation about life, because you may be one of the few people they feel comfortable enough to talk to. But in the end, you need to get to the bottom of how best to treat and care for the patient. That’s the end goal.”
In Gottwald’s view, bedside manner is a major factor that plays into a larger issue in healthcare—what she describes as the “robotic tendency” that has become prevalent in hospitals and physician’s offices.
“In a system that has become increasingly revenue-based, providers are pressured to care for more patients in a day than ever before. As a consequence, patient-provider personal relationships are dwindling,” Gottwald says. “It’s important that people are treated as people and not as organisms with conditions.”
Treating patients with empathy and kindness is more than just the right thing to do—it promotes wellness, too. According to a 2014 analysis of 13 studies, “a positive doctor-patient relationship can have statistically significant effects on ‘hard health outcomes, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, asthma, pulmonary infections and osteoarthritis pain.’” Patients who feel more comfortable with their doctors may find it easier to be more open with them, ask more questions about their health, and trust their recommendations.
“I’m excited to revive that connection when I become a physician and bring patient care back to its roots,” Gottwald says. “My goal is to heal people in an empathetic, compassionate way.”
In addition to helping shape Gottwald’s perspective on patient-physician interactions, Dr. McNiff was integral in guiding Gottwald on her medical school journey. Dr. McNiff was the one who first introduced Gottwald to the idea of attending medical school abroad, and encouraged her to look into AUC.
“Thank you to AUC for producing a great alumnus who was able to guide me with grace and an open heart to my career in medicine,” Gottwald says. “It’s exactly what I’d been searching for.”