With so much in the health care industry revolving around bureaucracy, numbers and politics, actual patients sometimes feel buried under an avalanche of red tape and rhetoric.
But for Dr. Robert Hopkins, medicine is — and always has been — about people.
“I went into medicine to be a doctor, not a manager,” he says.
He is a manager, and has been for many years, as a professor of medicine and pediatrics and director of the general internal medicine division at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences where he oversees a group of 25 doctors at the hospital and at satellite clinics.
He has also served as president, vice president and medical director at Harmony Health Clinic, a free clinic for uninsured Arkansans that he helped found.
Earlier this year, he was awarded Mastership in the American College of Physicians, an honor only a fraction of the world’s internists achieve.
But positions and honors come second to his primary focuses: education and patient care.
“If you see one patient that has been turned away or has ignored their needs or has had their needs ignored because of finances or because they didn’t think they had access, you can spend a few minutes with them,” Hopkins explains. “You can listen to their story. You can help them a little bit and see the look on their face that somebody actually cares. That’s probably one of the most rewarding things that you could ever experience.”
“He is fearless in his advocacy,” says Dr. Sara Tariq, a former student of Hopkins’ who is an associate professor of internal medicine at UAMS and serves as current president of Harmony Health Clinic.
Hopkins’ boss at UAMS, Dr. James Marsh, agrees.
“He really is dedicated to helping the medically underserved.”
It’s a quality that started early in life for Hopkins, the oldest of four and “a born and bred Arkansan,” who was born in Batesville before moving to Hope, Hot Springs, Searcy and Little Rock.
“I was raised in a family where service and engagement in the community was just part of what you did,” Hopkins says.
Much of that came from his family’s involvement with the Presbyterian Church, where he was encouraged through youth group and other activities to be active in the community.
“If you see a need, you try to help meet that need,” he says.
He took that to heart, even as a very young child. His mother, Sarah Jane Hopkins, recalls that as a preschooler, he filled his pockets with Band-Aids and a bottle of Mercurochrome.
“He was ready to handle any problem that came along,” she says. “He didn’t grow up saying ‘I’m going to be a doctor,’ but it was almost like it was meant to be.”
Shortly before Hopkins started high school, his father was transferred to New Jersey. After graduating from Davidson College in North Carolina, the younger Hopkins taught junior high chemistry and physics before attending the Medical College of Georgia School of Medicine.
He graduated in 1989 and returned to Arkansas for his residency.
Since then, he has taught students and residents and taken care of patients at UAMS and Arkansas Children’s Hospital through his double-specialties in internal medicine and pediatrics. And his motto of doing what needs to be done and filling needs has been central to his work.
Hopkins’ passion for his patients, his programs and causes is typical of him, according to those who know him well.
“Whatever he gets into, he’s going to be very interested in,” his mother says. “He doesn’t dally around in stuff that isn’t really important to him.”
That extends from his work to his hobbies such as fly-fishing and old cars.
“This guy could tell you the model year of a Jeep rusting away on a back lot in northern Arkansas from a distance of 200 yards,” says Dr. Jon Lindemann, Hopkins’ colleague at UAMS and fly-fishing buddy.
And then there’s his family. He and his wife, Shauna, married in 1997 after dating for several years. They now have three children: son Will, 18, is studying engineering at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, 16-year-old Hunter is a junior at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts in Hot Springs and their 7-year-old daughter, Palmer, “is the boss of the family.”
At work, his focus on patient care is not lost on colleagues, according to Lindemann, who has experienced Hopkins’ medical skills “from the other side of the stethoscope.”
“It’s almost impossible to get in to see him,” Lindemann says. “Any faculty member at the Med Center who needs an internist wants to go see him. He’s a doctor’s doctor.”
The reasons for that are multiple. Tariq calls him “a master” at physical examination and history taking and Lindemann cites his vast medical knowledge and communication skills.
“He is an immensely kind and decent human being who is very much other-directed,” said March, his boss. “The opposite of a narcissist. He’s highly intuitive. He understands people very well.”
Lindemann agrees. “He just gets it. He really cares about the patient. He sits down and talks to them. He teaches that by example.”
Teaching medical students and supervising residents has always gone beyond basic clinical knowledge for Hopkins.
“I think learning the medicine is important but the interactions and the humanism and being a professional and knowing where to draw the lines between empathy and getting too personal I think those are absolutely critical skills. I put a lot of emphasis on those,” Hopkins says.
His passion for teaching started, he says, during his time teaching junior high school students.
Now, he says, “It’s very rewarding to see somebody go from an undifferentiated, very bright young medical student to a talented and competent professional. That’s a great joy.”
Tariq, who was one of Hopkins’ students at UAMS before returning to work as a teacher and doctor herself, has experienced his teaching skills as a student, as a fellow teacher and as a fellow doctor.
“He comes to work ready to give 150 percent and he inspires that in all of us without raising his voice at anybody, without ridiculing anybody. He is perpetually our advocate and in that sense really wants us to continue to do better in everything that we do.”
His example made a particular impression on Tariq, who says, “My motto in life has been, particularly in my career, if I’m following what Bob Hopkins does, I’m on the right path.”
She has even followed his footsteps into his other great passion: Harmony Health Clinic.
The clinic, which provides free primary medical and basic dental care to low-income, uninsured Arkansans, first began in 2005 when lawyers Amy Johnson and Matt House began talking about the needs of the uninsured. When Hopkins heard about their idea, he was quick to jump on board as one of the founding members.
“It was an organic experience of a lot of people from a lot of different walks of life recognizing a need, saying ‘What can we do to get broad-based services available?’” Hopkins says.
There were already other care clinics in central Arkansas and Hopkins had been involved ever since his residency, but he was attracted to the idea of a clinic that was not tied to a religious group.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” he says. “It’s a wonderful thing. But there were some patients who were uncomfortable being in a situation where they felt like they had to fit with a certain group to receive care. What led to our founding was we wanted to be able to treat anybody if they have a need. We didn’t want them to feel like we were pushing them in one particular faith tradition, or nonfaith tradition.”
The clinic opened in 2008 in a building donated by the Metropolitan Housing Authority and it keeps running through donations and grants. Most of the work is done by volunteers, either by medical professionals or by people offering to do yard work or provide snacks or sing Christmas carols for workers and patients.
Since opening, it has added an ophthalmologist and an endocrinologist and it’s working to expand to other specialties as well. Some basic pharmacy services are available.
Hopkins has served multiple terms as medical director and has been president and vice president.
It was Hopkins who convinced Tariq to get involved at the clinic, to eventually become medical director and now, president. When she took over, he remained on the board to help ease her into the role.
“He doesn’t leave things high and dry,” she says. “He mentors people, brings them in, makes sure they’re comfortable in their role and then eases out.”
The clinic primarily sees adult patients. Through an arrangement with Arkansas Children’s Hospital, children are usually sent there for care and treatment.
Health care system changes and the expansion of Medicaid and private options did lead to a drop-off in clinic patients but, Hopkins stresses, the need is still there. The demographics just look a bit different.
“We see a lot of people that fall through the cracks, not being able to afford to stay on one of the private plans. People who have not gotten the help they need to sign up for Medicaid. So the need is still there and still very significant.”
Offering these services, Hopkins says, is vital to the health of not only the patients but the community at large. He stresses the importance of prevention and primary care, diagnosing and treating problems before they become major health crises that strain the patient, his family and put more strain on the health care industry.
“If we can focus on investing in those prevention and primary care issues, we might end up saving this country a lot of money.”
But even more than that is the human element.
Through the clinic, Hopkins and the other doctors and nurses help people who are often invisible.
“If you see one patient that has been turned away or has ignored their needs or has had their needs ignored because of finances or because they didn’t think they had access, you can spend a few minutes with them. You can listen to their story. You can help them a little bit and see the look on their face that somebody actually cares. That’s probably one of the most rewarding things that you could ever experience.”
Always the teacher, Hopkins says that reward is compounded when undergraduates and medical students are part of that process.
“They can learn how important it is to be a servant in the community and see the gratitude that people have,” he says. “You get double or triple benefits.”
The result can be more compassionate doctors capable of connecting with their patients and really listening to them.
He may have stepped back from his leadership role at Harmony Health Clinic, but he now has a new project, developing a program for UAMS and Children’s that will help young people with chronic health conditions transition from pediatric to adult health care. The patients often have to find new doctors, and handle medicines, appointments and insurance problems.
“It’s a great challenge,” Hopkins says. “How can we shift in a relatively seamless way into the adult health care world?”
His new challenge fits in well with Hopkins’ philosophy of pitching in wherever, whenever and however you can to make the community a little better.
“I think the more that we can all recognize the value of each other regardless of background, regardless of income, regardless of anything else — the more we can recognize the value that each of us brings, maybe that can help with cutting down some of this gun violence. Maybe it can cut down on some of the distrust. I think every little bit helps. Looking someone in the eye and saying ‘I care’ can make a world of difference.”
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: April 28, 1962, Batesville
FAMILY: wife Shauna, children Will, Hunter, Palmer
HOBBY: I love to fly-fish. I like to tinker with old cars. Tinkering in general. I like to cycle and spend time doing anything outdoors.
OLD CARS I OWN: I emptied my shop when my oldest son was getting ready to get his driver’s license. The idea of a 16-year-old driving a car that didn’t have seat belts was one battle my wife and I decided we didn’t want to fight.
BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT: If things don’t go your way, keep pushing ahead. Don’t be bullheaded but keep trying to solve the problem and keep moving ahead and you’ll succeed.
FAVORITE FOOD: Steak
LEAST-FAVORITE FOOD: I’m pretty much an omnivore. If you put monkey brains in front of me, that might change things.
FAVORITE SPORT: College basketball
BIGGEST INSPIRATION: One of my former mentors, George Ackerman. He was always very thoughtful. He put patients first. If he didn’t know an answer, he always had a plan for finding the answer.
MOST PRIZED POSSESSION: Time
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Driven