Spotlight on Dr. Rob Warren

On June 1, 2021, Rob Warren began his new position in the department as assistant program director, rural.

By Danica Erickson - 04 August 2021

On June 1, 2021, Rob Warren began his new position in the department as assistant program director, rural. We spoke to Rob about his journey from political science student to rural family physician and then on to professor with the Department of Family Medicine at the University of   Alberta.

Tell us about yourself, Rob.

I was born and raised in Calgary. I did my first year of university in Calgary, because Calgary was hosting the Olympics that year and I wanted to be in my hometown for the Olympics.  transferred to the University of Alberta for my second year to complete my undergraduate degree in political science. It’s also where I met my wife, Michelle, in Kelsey Hall in Lister residences in 1988. An undergraduate degree in political science sets you up to go to law school, so I went to the U of A for law school and graduated with the class of 1994 with my law degree. I clerked at the courthouse in Edmonton and worked for a firm in Edmonton, while Michelle was in medical school here as well. When she matched to the University of Calgary for her family medicine residency, we moved to Calgary and I worked for a law firm there.  

Michelle always wanted to practice medicine in a small town, so when I reached the stage of my law career where it got complex to have a career and a young family, we made a decision together for me to give up my law practice to stay home with our three kids for seven years here in Sundre. I also spent that time figuring out what I wanted to do when I grew up, and settled on being a family doctor. So I went back to medical school at the U of C, matched into the U of A’s rural family medicine residency program in Red Deer. As of six days ago I’ve been in practice for 10 years, most of which have been at the Moose & Squirrel Medical Clinic which Michelle and I own, here in Sundre.


How long have you been teaching with our department? Why did you start?

Two years ago, I returned to the residency program I trained in as one of two site co-directors. Along with my co-director, I was responsible for the day-to-day oversight of the training program for the family medicine residents based in Red Deer. I was in that position for just about two years, leaving in early June to take this position of assistant program director position responsible for rural position with the Department of Family Medicine. My portfolio includes the rural training sites in Red Deer, Grande Prairie, and Yellowknife plus any rural communities that accept our U of A family medicine resident for training opportunities.  


Does your legal background help your work?

It is helpful in being a little bit more comfortable in the areas where law and medicine intersect, such as when a person loses the capacity to make a decision for themselves and a personal directive might need to be enacted. In law you also learn a specific way to think about problems; a rigorous way to approach a problem that your patient or client can’t see on their own. You learn to understand what’s important to your patient or client so you can help them achieve a result that has value to them. So right from the start, as a doctor I adopted a very patient-centred approach. I’m a person that has a certain area of knowledge and expertise to help them achieve what they want to achieve. I think that comes from the way I learned how to be a lawyer.


Will you still be taking learners, and if so, which learners will you take?

Yes, I will still be taking learners. This new role was meant to be filled by a doctor practicing rural medicine. It’s built into my role to see patients two days a week. I’m teaching the way I’ve always taught; overseeing learners who are learning how to do my job by doing my job, so I’m still accepting residents and medical students. The best part is that I have time devoted specifically to teaching. I have dedicated teaching time carved out and that’s made me more available to teach learners than I was previously. 


Tell us about your favourite teaching memory.

In my first year of practice I was involved in teaching a medical student who had been placed in Sundre for nine months as part of an integrated clerkship program. She was very successful, and went on to match to the Red Deer residency training program; she was aspiring to be a rural doctor. Some years later I got a phone call from her out of the blue. She asked “Rob, do you have time to talk? I need a mentor moment?”

She had been driving to Calgary and had come upon an accident where someone was gravely injured and she stopped to help, jumping into the back of the ambulance transporting him to the hospital. Unfortunately he died. She was back on her way to pick one of her parents up at the airport and on the way she had to pull over, suddenly overcome with distress about what she had gone through. And the person she thought to call was me, because we had forged a relationship as mentor-mentee and when she needed a person to unburden herself to, it was me. The meaningfulness of that teaching moment was firstly, that you never know what kind of influence you are going to have on somebody. Secondly, it speaks to the strength of the bond that lasts beyond the time that you work with someone as teacher and student can make a difference beyond the teaching world.


What keeps you motivated to teach in challenging times like these?

It changes every day, but in a broader sense what keeps me motivated is, number one, that no matter what happens with the government or society that I can’t control, I still enjoy building a medical clinic and trying to design a way of delivering medical care to a community in a way that meets its needs. Michelle and I are always on the lookout  for ways to do better, and so I think that builder philosophy keeps me going. Obviously teaching too; no matter what is going on in the outside world there is always a fresh-faced group of new, keen learners who cross the door into our clinic every year wanting to do what I do, and that’s always very energizing and motivating for me.


We know you are a mentor to junior physicians in your practice. What advice do you give them about having learners in their practice?

Every April, May and June we have a number of students reaching the end of their training and about to start practice. I like to sit down with them at the end of their rotations and talk about what it’s like to start a career. Two main themes usually come out as a bit of fatherly wisdom from me. The first is that  this is a team sport and you need to find your people. This job has great moments, and very challenging moments. Great moments are better if you have someone to share them with and challenging moments are easier if you have someone to share them with. So find your people, and hold on to them.

 The second piece of advice is boundary setting. This is a very rewarding academically stimulating emotionally rewarding job when you get to help people. But the reality is that the entire province is underserved  and rural Alberta in particular is underserved and there will always be people who want you to do more. And you don’t go into medicine without usually having the qualities of wanting to please people and the fear of missing out, so be intentional before you take on more. Be intentional as to why you are taking on other things. Don’t do things to please other people or because you fear you will never have the opportunity again. Do it because it’s intrinsically rewarding. A quote that I heard years ago and I still share is “don’t say ‘yes’ unless it’s ‘hell yes!’”.


What else would you like people to know^

I took this position because it’s a team I want to be a part of, and it’s another opportunity to build. There’s an opportunity to build and grow the rural residency training program, and that’s why this new job speaks to me. It aligns with the things that are important to me.