Family physician teaches medical students and unique kids’ pre-med curriculum

Robin Dickinson, MD, is a board-certified family physician who started the first direct primary care (DPC) clinic in her hometown of Englewood in 2012. With the goal of serving uninsured and underinsured patients, she founded the only free clinic in Englewood in 2013. Dr. Dickinson has a passion for teaching: she is an adjunct professor at Rocky Vista University, teaching first-year students clinical skills. She also developed the first pre-medical curriculum for kids, “Dr. Robin’s School,” and she hosts a podcast for young people who want to be physicians. 

1. Who or what inspired you to become a physician?

I’m now relatively close with both my parents but my home was not a safe place when I was little and my mom left with my sister and I when I was 5. We ended up living in poverty in an unsafe neighborhood until she remarried and we moved to Aurora. When I was around 6, I caught a peek at my medical chart and saw photos of myself and my sister covered in bruises. The memory of seeing that is so vivid. At that moment, I realized that our doctor knew exactly what was going on at home…and never addressed it directly with us, that I could remember. So it started percolating in my head that doctors know what’s happening in people’s families when no one else does and can help them. It didn’t occur to me that *I* could be a physician. But I did notice that the nurses at the doctor’s office were all women and had careers and incomes and didn’t have to rely on someone else to support them. In the car on the way home from another appointment, I told my mom that I wanted to be a nurse but not deal with blood or pee. She told me, “Well you can be a doctor and then your nurse will take care of that for you.” I will always appreciate that as a woman who was just trying to keep her family safe and fed, at a time when only about 15 percent of practicing physicians were women, my mom told me that I could be a doctor.

2. Tell me about your practice; have you always practiced direct primary care or did you transition from another practice setting?

Right out of residency, I worked for a wonderful practice up in Conifer. I will always be grateful for the mentorship and support I received there. I went to CU for medical school and in our Foundations of Doctoring course during the first year, we spent one afternoon a week in a *real* doctor’s office! (It was very exciting!) I was assigned to that practice so I was blessed to spend two years there as a student and then return as a practicing physician after residency.

But my heart was always for my patients who were uninsured and underinsured so after three years, I started Community Support Family Medicine (now under a different owner) – it was modeled after community support agriculture with the idea that the patients supported me and then had full access to my care. I had no staff and worked from a 350 sqft office space just three blocks from my house. I learned about direct primary care (DPC) a year or so after my practice opened. I couldn’t afford to care for patients who couldn’t pay, so I also started a free clinic at a local church (The Well, Englewood) that is still going strong. The current medical director is also a Colorado Medical Society member and is a wonderful person! 

Immediately after opening my practice, I had a vertebral artery dissection and multiple cerebellar strokes so I resigned from my old job, which was intended to support us while I got my practice off the ground. But the practice ended up as the only income for my family for seven years, which I think is an excellent proof of concept. I sold my practice in March of 2020 to care for my kids during Covid.

3. Tell me about your pre-med curriculum for kids. 

When I sold my practice in 2020, I was a bit lost about what to do next. My sister (an elementary special needs teacher) suggested I start teaching pre-med classes for kids online. Every time I tell someone what I do now, I get to watch them work through how to respond. It’s apparently very unexpected. These days, kids are already coding in preschool and yet their understanding of the human body remains very limited. Why aren’t kids learning in depth about their bodies? My pre-med classes don’t just scratch the surface; the kids’ understanding of human physiology lets them logically think through questions such as what symptoms might happen with low iron or the differences between type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Most of my students are in 3rd through 8th grade. Initially, I just taught live classes. But there’s just one me and so many kids out there! So now it’s an online curriculum, Dr. Robin’s School.

We have two main groups of families using it. One is the parents who want their kids to be motivated to take care of themselves…either for prevention or because of a serious medical condition. Our experience is that once kids understand their bodies in depth, they actually want to take care of them. The other group of families are “STEM” families – the kids of physicians, nurses, researchers, engineers and science teachers. This group is looking for something more intellectually stimulating and are often encouraging their youngsters on a career path.

4. You share on your website that your husband and children are neurodiverse. What advice would you share with your peer physicians about caring for neurodiverse patients?

I’m so glad you asked! 15-20 percent of the population is neurodiverse if we include dyslexia. About 1-2 percent of the population have autism and 4-5 percent have ADHD. Many people have multiple different diagnoses within the group of neurodiversity. My kids and husband are autistic with ADHD/dyslexia/etc. In my practice, I cared for a number of neurodiverse kids and adults. Many of them had been labeled as “difficult patients” or “non-compliant” or “adversarial” at previous practices. 

Using a Trauma Informed Care approach for all patients helps those from a variety of marginalized groups or with disabilities have access to the care they need. Taking this seriously with training and a comprehensive plan through every aspect of your practice is so important but start with what you can do right now. ACEs Aware is a great website with lots of resources. 

5. What do you do to maintain your personal wellbeing? What advice do you have for others about maintaining balance and mental health?

I think balance is too precarious a term–I tend to think more in terms of a life-energy bucket. I have many drains in my bucket. So I also need to have many ways of filling my bucket. For me, that’s knitting, enjoying hot chocolate, cuddling my cats and dog, playing board games with my family, and watching Taskmaster.

It’s important to also figure out if various drains are worth it. Sometimes I just need to reframe my mindset around something for it to stop being a drain. Other times, I need to cut something out or ask for help. Being willing to make big changes is hard. If someone had told me 11 years ago that I would be where I am now, having gone through what I have and yet created a new life, I would have been terrified! 

Often as physicians, we want to have clear plans and goals. Sometimes, we have to be willing to focus on our needs right at that moment. It’s really about finding what works for you and your situation, and trying different (and often unconventional) things. Figuring out what actually helps you, not what you think should help. I use this PDF with my students and their parents, but I honestly designed it for myself first because I was the one who needed it the most! It helps to think through different categories of bucket filling and bucket draining rather than look at it as one big mess.

The Colorado Medical Society's monthly member spotlight series offers CMS members the opportunity to share their passions and wisdom from medicine and life in general, and allows the medical society to highlight members from around the state. All CMS members are eligible to be featured; contact to self-nominate or to nominate one of your colleagues. It takes as little as 20 minutes of your time!