Dr. Robyn Riseberg of ‘Boston Community Pediatrics for Youth’: “Ask for help”

Ask for help: I have never been in so many situations where I was being asked to make decisions about things I really didn’t know anything about. But I always knew there had to be someone out there who did know something, and I have luckily always found those people. I also asked so many […]

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Ask for help: I have never been in so many situations where I was being asked to make decisions about things I really didn’t know anything about. But I always knew there had to be someone out there who did know something, and I have luckily always found those people. I also asked so many people for advice and help. It is just as important to know what you don’t know than to know a lot.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Robyn Riseberg, founder of Boston Community Pediatrics (BCP).

Dr. Riseberg creates innovative medical programs and collaborates closely with community organizations to improve the lives of patients and communities. Before founding BCP, she was the head of pediatrics at the South End Community Health Center (SECHC) and the Founding Medical Director of the School-Based Health Center at the Blackstone Elementary School at the Dr. Gerald Hass Center in the South End. Dr. Riseberg is a graduate of the University of Michigan, UMass Medical School (where she received numerous awards and was an Albert Schweitzer fellow), and the Boston Combined Residency Program (Boston Children’s Hospital and Boston Medical Center).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I did not grow up wanting to be a doctor. In fact, I was terrified of blood and sick people. But, I was always interested in helping people. During college, I was a psychology major and I thought I wanted to be a sports psychologist. After college, I traveled around the world, mostly to Southeast Asia. While traveling around India, I realized how much work there was to be done in the world to make things more equitable and thought it would be so fulfilling to be a pediatrician, but never really told anyone. I moved to New York City and worked for Planned Parenthood where I realized that healthcare was the path I wanted to pursue. I went back to school to take all of my premed requirements and then on to medical school. I always knew I wanted to work with underserved populations and starting working at a community health center right after residency. After almost 15 years of serving mostly minority populations, I came to understand that we as a society could do better. And I realized that we needed a new way to think about how to truly provide equitable care. I spent many years working with different programs and was always thinking about how we could do things differently. I spent over a year talking to experts around the country and trying to really understand healthcare from the perspective of the patients, and determined that the best way to provide outstanding, equitable care would be to start the first nonprofit pediatric private practice in Massachusetts.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

As soon as I received my 501c3 status, I knew I had to start raising money quickly.

Frankly though, I wasn’t exactly sure how to start. I literally had dollar 0 to start this. I had worked hard on a PowerPoint presentation that was pretty good, but not perfect. At the last minute, I printed it out at Staples on nicer paper with a nicer printer and off I went. The donor loved the idea and was absolutely going to fund me at 100,000 dollars for the first three years! The really nice PowerPoint was the best 30 dollars investment I ever made.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There are so many…

When I was a resident at Children’s Hospital Boston, I was seeing a patient in the emergency room who had such a low heart rate that normally that patient would have been in shock. However, this patient had a condition where her heart rate was very low. I walked into the room and saw the heart rate and immediately ran to get the attending (who happened to be the head of the entire emergency department at Boston Children’s Hospital) and said you need to come with me immediately as the patient is so sick and we have to do something right away. And he said, what is the patient doing? I said sitting up and talking to me. It was then that I realized that this patient was fine and my panic was for nothing and I was incredibly embarrassed. We always learned to look at the patient first and not the numbers or the machines, but in that moment of panic, I had forgotten. But I have never forgotten this moment and always look at the patient first when I walk into a room.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

We are totally changing the way pediatric healthcare is delivered. and showing people that they deserve better. I had a patient come in the second day we opened and she said to her daughter, “Isn’t this place wonderful? You deserve to feel happy and calm when you go see your doctor. You deserve a beautiful doctor’s office like this where the doctors listen to you and care about you.”.

Low-income pediatric patients often receive their healthcare from clinics that are cost-driven and prioritize a higher quantity of patients seen. Even the most passionate and committed physicians are hamstrung by bureaucracy, which limits their ability to provide high-quality care and leads to unmet need, fragmented services, and lower patient satisfaction. Private practices provide more easily accessible care, but predominantly cater to patients with private insurance. This broken model ensures that low-income patients spend less time with their provider and receive a lower-quality of care than their higher income peers, ultimately fueling an unacceptable racial and income divide that deepens inequity. In fact, the rate of ER visits is 86.1% higher for lower-income families than rates for their wealthier counterparts and children from low-income backgrounds are three times more likely to have an unmet health need. BCP brings the best practices from years of previous experience in community health with the flexibility of a small, private practice to a traditionally underserved population of young people. BCP’s model goes back to the relationship between the health provider and the patient as the center of all aspects of young people’s care by bringing services that address all of the social determinants of health under one roof for the comprehensive and streamlined experience that all patients deserve.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

There are so many people in need of services who will greatly benefit from BCP’s model which really looks at health as a combination of physical health, mental health and the social determinants that affect one’s health. I have one mother who called me right before our actual opening to let me know that she needed our help as she is about to be evicted. Another organization is helping her with her first month’s rent and security deposit, but she couldn’t find anyone to help with her moving expenses. Without this help, she will be homeless. Our Director of Wellness and Care Navigation has already started working with this mom to help her find resources. And, we also have created a special Hardship Fund from two very generous donors which will help this family after all other resources have been exhausted. We are the people who patients call when they are in need and don’t know who else to turn to. BCP has staff and providers and the infrastructure to help patients during routine visits but also when they are in crisis and really in need of help.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Fight racism.
  2. Demand more equity in our healthcare system and more emphasis on prevention in medicine.
  3. Make early childcare and early education a right and not a luxury for all families.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Lead by example. I try to never ask anyone to do something that I wouldn’t or couldn’t do. When COVID hit in March, I made a very deliberate decision to see patients in person, every day. I did not feel it was right to ask others to come to work at this very scary time while I was staying home. And so I came every day. In addition, I did not want to ask others to test patients for COVID-19 if I wasn’t going to so I was the only pediatrician testing children for COVID-19.

It is really important to give people the space to make mistakes and learn from them. I try to always let people know when I have made a mistake, big or small, and then talk about what we have learned and how to try not to repeat this same mistake.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Be brave not perfect/do not let perfection be the enemy: I would say I am somewhat of a perfectionist and I think my husband would agree…But, as the founder of a new organization, I knew everything was not going to be perfect. I also knew that if I were going to be the force to move everything along at a rapid pace, everything might not be perfect. There were many fundraising pitches where I knew that I might not have everything done perfectly, but what I did know was that my passion for starting BCP and my investment in patients and staff was above and beyond and hopefully people would see this and not focus on other imperfections. At two of my first fundraising events, I realized that my pitch wasn’t perfect. In fact, I did not get one donation as a result and it was definitely disappointing. However, I was able to take feedback and learn what I could do better. Since then I have had many more individual pitches and conversations and to date, I have raised almost 1.5 million dollars for the first year and multi-year pledges so clearly I have learned from not being perfect.
  2. Ask for help: I have never been in so many situations where I was being asked to make decisions about things I really didn’t know anything about. But I always knew there had to be someone out there who did know something, and I have luckily always found those people. I also asked so many people for advice and help. It is just as important to know what you don’t know than to know a lot.
  3. Keep putting one foot in front of the other — This is one of my life mantras that I learned from my best friend, Abigail Goodman, when we ran the Boston Marathon together almost 10 years ago. It was a famous saying of her father, Richard Ross. The origin of the saying is from Sergeant Koulik, who was in charge of his army troop. One time, they had been marching for many miles and the soldiers were wet, hungry and tired and they wanted to give up. Sergeant Koulik commanded them to keep going until they finished and put one %!?% foot in front of the other until they made it to their destination. There were certainly times when I felt discouraged but always remembered to keep marching along and putting one foot in front of the other.
  4. Sometimes things happen for a reason: I initially wanted to be in one particular neighborhood that I thought would be perfect for BCP. I found a great space and asked the landlord to lease it to me. At this time, they really wanted a restaurant to lease the space as this is what the community wanted. I asked multiple times and finally realized it wasn’t going to happen. I then found our current space, which I wasn’t sure about at first (although now I can’t imagine being anywhere else). As I was about to sign the lease for our current space, I got a call from the first space that they were ready to lease it to me. I had to let it go which was so hard. In the end, it is clear we have the perfect space in the perfect location.
  5. Trust yourself above all else: This can be hard. It was something I learned on my very first day of pediatric residency. Our chief resident, Rebekah Mannix, who is an amazing leader, said to all of us — this is going to be tough and you are going to have your doubts. Ask questions and ask for help. Always double check everything and remember above all else, trust yourself. There were a lot of people who had a lot of doubts about what I was doing. I had to continue to trust myself, believe in myself especially during some of those difficult times. However, I was always lucky to have my family 100% behind me — my husband, daughters, parents and siblings.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am creating a movement to change the way healthcare is delivered to all children. Pediatric healthcare is not currently equitable, but it can be. We just have to change our thinking around it. Healthcare is currently funded through insurance reimbursement. However, this model is not working. Medicaid reimbursements are much less than private insurance. BCP’s model works only with the addition of philanthropy. Philanthropy funds so many nonprofits so why not healthcare was well. And, it is a very small amount needed overall. For just a little over 1 dollar/day per child contributed through private philanthropy, BCP will have enough resources for EVERY patient to get exceptional medical care, integrated mental health care and care navigation services regardless of what type of insurance they have.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Treat others the way you would like to be treated. It is not only a great life lesson, but also the reason I am starting Boston Community Pediatrics. I believe that every child deserves the same outstanding care I want for my own children.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Michelle Obama. She’s amazing, inspiring, down to earth and such a role model. She knows what it is like to work hard and fight for what you believe in. I would love to meet her.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram! It’s hard to keep up with social media while starting an organization, fundraising and seeing patients. Luckily. I have two teenage daughters who help with BCP’s Instagram. Check us out!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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