Engineering quality patient care

Dr. Jacqueline L. Gerhart with Tocarra Kimball and her son.

Dr. Jacqueline L. Gerhart with patients Tocarra Kimball and her son A'lon.

While her heart is most definitely in the world of patient care, Dr. Jacqueline Gerhart serves as a superb example of the flexibility and potential of a biomedical engineering degree from the College of Engineering.

Like many biomedical engineers, Gerhart has been captivated by medical gadgetry since her first day on the College of Engineering campus in 2000. But just being familiar with the hardware and software of the medical world wasn’t enough for her. “I realized that being in research and development of medical instruments was fascinating, but it didn’t allow me to see how the patient used the end product,” Gerhart says. “Seeing how medical devices are used in a hospital and seeing how patients benefit from them became my passion.”

Gerhart came to that epiphany during a summer internship with Kimberly-Clark Medical Systems, where she worked to develop better percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) feeding tubes at its Lake City, Utah location. Gerhart realized that if she wanted to follow those designs out of a lab and into the lives of actual people, she would need to consider a career in patient care. “I really became interested in the aftermath of those designs, and seeing what the device was able to do for patients long term,” says Gerhart.

She returned to campus that fall, determined to head to medical school after graduation.

Gerhart advising her patients.

Gerhart advising her patients.

A month after earning her biomedical engineering degree in May 2004, Gerhart arrived at the Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minnesota.  She finished her medical degree in 2008, interned at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, for a year, and then did a family medical residency at the Wingra Clinic through the UW Department of Family Medicine, graduating in spring 2011.

Gerhart sought the day-to-day variety of patient care, and she certainly found it in family medicine. Currently, she sees patients as a family at the UW-Health Windsor-Deforest Clinic and works at Meriter Hospital, where she does everything from delivering babies to treating serious injuries. “I see patients that are anywhere from one day to 100 years old, which is amazing,” she says.

And, somewhere in between the clinic and the hospital, she finds time to teach UW-Madison courses on patient relationships and how to share bad news when patients are diagnosed with cancer.  She also teaches physical exam skills to medical students and writes a medical advice column for the Wisconsin State Journal. “I found myself excited and fascinated by the ability of medicine to go beyond the clinic and beyond the hospital, and tried to answer some of the questions that patients may feel either embarrassed, uncomfortable or silly asking,” Gerhart says.

In her clinic, she has started a reading program focused on encouraging reading as early as six months of age.  While she no longer does research in the field of engineering, she does clinical research in family medicine and is currently a fellow in the UW Primary Care Faculty Development Fellowship.

Gerhart with a few of the books she's distributing to patients as part of a new early childhood reading program.

Gerhart with a few of the books she's distributing to patients as part of an early childhood reading program.

Like a handful of other engineers who have decided to transition into medicine, Gerhart believes the technical literacy that comes with her engineering degree comes in handy when a patient asks how a pacemaker functions, or what a family can expect from the placement of a feeding tube in their loved one. “I think that my background in engineering has allowed me to recognize how important these questions are and helps me to gather further research for my patients” she says. “I notice I’m naturally interested in reviewing the newest procedures, devices and medicines to stay abreast of the ever-changing medical field and how engineering affects it.

She doesn’t necessarily measure the impact of her time on the engineering campus in facts and figures, though: Gerhart has plenty of fond memories from her tenure as an undergraduate here, including seeing the glass walls of the Engineering Centers Building slowly taking shape. “It was really neat to see the campus grow,” she says. “That building is crazy in terms of the colors and materials being used. I remember finally having a class in the Engineering Centers Building after having most of my classes in Engineering Hall. It was a great transition to a beautiful facility.”

She fondly recalls professors who both challenged and engaged her here, particularly Biomedical Engineering Professor David Beebe and Camp Badger coordinator and Engineering Professional Development Professor Phil O’Leary. “I remember Beebe’s class being tough, but essential to my understanding of engineering for the human body,” she says.

And she calls O’Leary an amazing professor. “He was someone that I felt that I wanted to become—because not only does he have an amazing sense of research and engineering, but an amazing ability to apply it to future generations,” she says.

In addition to her professional success, her time here on the engineering campus forged a lifelong bond with the university and Madison as a whole. “It’s part of the reason why I think I’m never going to leave,” says Gerhart. “I love it here.”

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