Getting to know Dr. Sandra Northcott

By Jennifer Parraga, BA'93

Browsing through her Twitter feed in late August, a post about Schulich Medicine & Dentistry’s new admissions process caught Sandra Northcott’s eye. She first noticed the photo of incoming medical student Gabby Schoettle on the post and became intrigued by her story shared through links.

“I thought the change that the School was taking to widen MCAT thresholds and admit students who had demonstrated resilience through life experience was really exciting and necessary,” Dr. Northcott said. “And to be honest, I saw some of myself in Gabby. But mostly the new admission process led me to wonder about how the School would be changing itself to support these new students.”

The seed was planted for Dr. Northcott to apply for the role as Associate Dean, Learner Equity & Wellness (LEW), at the School.

Dr. Northcott was born and raised in Deer Lake, a small town in the western part of Newfoundland. The oldest of two daughters she describes her life growing up in eastern Canada as lovely. Her parents encouraged her and her sister to embrace all that life had to offer.

Growing up, Northcott had some exposure to the complexities of medical care as her father was a multi-organ transplant recipient. However, it was biology and science behind the delivery of care that most captivated her. She credits an outstanding high school science teacher for capturing her imagination for science.

It wasn’t until a friend of hers had a severe accident and Dr. Northcott spent many nights sittiing by her beside that she began to think seriously about medicine.

“Another friend loaned me their MCAT study book so I had something to read as we kept watch over our friend,” said Dr. Northcott. “I ended up reading the book and thought to myself, I can do this. So I applied and got in.”

Going into her last rotation during clerkship, Dr Northcott was certain that internal medicine was the direction she was heading. But as each day passed during her psychiatry rotation, she began to realize that the parts of the physician role she enjoyed the most were the personal and emotional engagement aspects.

“I had a moment during my rotation when I felt like ‘this was home’” she said. “I knew that I could do this for the next 40 years or more.”

After completing her medical degree at Memorial University, Dr. Northcott came to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry to pursue her psychiatry residency. She then spent 13 years as consultant psychiatrist with the Prevention and Early Intervention Program for Psychoses in the city. In 2015, she moved to St. Joseph's Health Care London and two years later, she became the Site Chief at Parkwood Institute Mental Health Care and Southwest Centre for Forensic Mental Health Care.

“I love my clinical work a lot,” Dr. Northcott said, admitting to having some challenging days as a care provider.

For the dedicated physician a challenging day is when a patient isn’t ready to accept what they need, or the system doesn’t support them.

“I’ll give you an example,” she said. “There just isn’t enough secure housing for people in our community. We have patients who come to hospital and get stabilized and then they are discharged to an insecure housing situation. That is particularly tough for me and it happens more often than it should.”

And then there are the good days.

“A good day for me is when you see someone who is excelling,” she said. “Much like the patient I saw this morning, who was anxious to move our appointment along because he has a lunch booked with his friends. This is someone who, a short time ago, was isolated and was fighting with the voices in his head. But today, he was excited to talk about his family and go and spend time with his friends. These are the moments I cherish.”

Dr. Northcott is equally passionate about the academic aspects of her career and the opportunities to teach.

Her dedication has been rewarded having been named to the Teaching Honour Roll Award from the University Student Council multiple times from 2000 to 2015. She also received the Hippocratic Clinical Science Teaching Award twice and a Certificate of Outstanding Achievement from her home department. The Canadian Association for Medical Education recently awarded her with a Certificate of Merit for her commitment to medical education.

Settling into her new role, Dr. Northcott sees herself as an advocate who will be tapping into her mental health background, her experiences working with young people and in the work she did in helping to create the Zero Suicide Initiative.

She hopes to better define the mandate and role of the LEW Office, develop a plan for learner mistreatment, create greater synergies between the different student support services on campus and explore and how the Office can create a better structure to support wellness.

“Part of LEW’s role is to facilitate some of the conversations dealing with what are now seen as ongoing challenges that our learners face – things such as the hidden curriculum, wellness and the culture of perfectionism,” she said.

Dividing her hours between administrative, operational and student meetings, Dr. Northcott is enjoying being on campus. The added bonus is that her whole family is on campus – with her son in his first year of his undergraduate studies, her daughter completing her master’s and her husband, who is a faculty member in applied mathematics.

“We are a hockey-loving, movie-watching family,” she said. “This year is a bit different, having everyone at home, but we have a great life.”

Never losing sight of the needs of learners, Dr. Northcott is eager to work with her team and colleagues to ensure students like Gabby Shoettle will have everything they need to succeed as students and physicians.