Dear Doctor: Alison Levine
The Boulder-based pediatrician on building long-term relationships with patients and their families and cultivating health literacy from a young age.
Board-certified pediatrician Dr. Alison Levine is passionate about promoting lifelong health through building long-term relationships with patients and their families. Dr. Levine completed her undergraduate degree in Biology and Human Rights Studies at Columbia University and completed medical school and pediatric residency at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Dedicated to promoting health and wellness in young people, Dr. Levine further developed her skills in primary care for diverse populations as an Americorps volunteer, Albert Schweitzer Fellow, and coordinator of a pediatrics clinic at a women’s shelter. She practices clinical pediatrics at The Pediatric Center in Boulder, CO, and she is developing online resources as Family Wellness Pediatrician.
Read on to learn about what inspired her to pursue pediatrics, how she builds long-term relationships with her patients, and why she believes cultivating health literacy at a young age is vital to long-term wellness.
What inspired you to choose your specialty?
I was inspired to pursue pediatrics because of my passion and investment in wellness and healthy habits. As important as it is to treat sickness, I felt that I could have the greatest impact on lifelong health and wellness by taking care of kids and their families.
As a medical student, I noticed that a lot of adults were already set in their habits and, in some cases, suffering from chronic lifestyle illnesses. I also noticed that parents are often motivated to give their kids the very best start in life. As a result, most parents are open to advice about things like nutrition, sleep, behavior, development, and other factors that are vital to good health.
In many ways, children are like a blank slate: They come without any bad habits, and with good guidance, they’re much more able to adapt to healthy changes when necessary.
Tell us more about your approach to building long-term relationships with children and their families.
I’m very lucky to work in a small, physician-run, medical home practice that empowers me to take care of patients in the way that I believe is best. I’m also able to provide good continuity of care by getting to know my patients really well, which many doctors aren’t able to do these days.
When a family chooses me as their child’s pediatrician, I get to know every aspect of their health, from their child’s growth and development to the family’s eating habits, cultural practices, values, and more. And I take a lot of notes. That way, when I see that child the following year, I’m able to ask personalized questions about their favorite books, the sports they play, their pets, and so on. Of course, I hope that these questions help patients feel special, but it’s also rewarding for me to connect with my patients on a deeper level.
Because I take care of the babies that are born in our hospital and that are being cared for in the NICU, I also have the special opportunity to meet many of my patients on their very first day of life. I love seeing them off to kindergarten and then as teens off to college (often taking care of them on their school breaks.).
Throughout my practice, I’ve also noticed that a lot of families don’t have access to this type of pediatric care, which is why I’m currently developing ways to connect digitally with families who are seeking out evidence-based pediatric wellness.
At the end of the day, I’m always on the same team as the parents. I recognize that every parent wants the best for their child. Even in interactions where we might not come to the same decision or we might have differing viewpoints, knowing that a parent wants the best for their child gives me the necessary empathy to work through whatever disagreement or misinformation challenges may be present. Plus, I’m fortunate to know that the parents trust me and my knowledge to make the right recommendations for their child.
Does cultivating health literacy begin at a young age?
Yes! I always speak directly to my patients — even the babies. While I realize that might sound a bit silly, it’s important to me that the children know from a young age that their health and wellness are absolutely for and about them. I also want to show parents that by speaking directly and openly to their six-month-old, ten-year-old, or 17-year-old, that I’m showing the child that they are the director of their own health.
One way I facilitate this is by asking kids aged three and older how they keep themselves healthy and well — and I get the most wonderful answers. Some of my favorite answers have included: “I give great hugs and I’m a good friend” “I’m the best sleeper in my house” and “I feed my dog and I cook with my grandma” I always praise kids for their creative answers because often they are actually more intuitive than adults about what keeps them emotionally and physically healthy and well.
Interestingly, as kids get older, it can become harder for them to answer this question. While younger kids volunteer more open and honest answers, older kids tend to offer more run-of-the-mill responses, like “I eat healthily” or “I exercise.” Since I haven’t known all of these teenagers for the majority of their lives, I’m curious to learn what happens to my younger patients’ impressions of health and wellness as they grow.
How else does health education come into play in your practice?
There are five Domains of Wellness that I bring up and discuss with all of my patients including 1) nutrition, 2) sleep, 3) movement, 4) calm, and 5) connection. I believe that all are important when it comes to health and wellbeing.
There are so many milestones that we track in regards to a child’s development, but there aren’t really any reliable guidelines for the development of health and wellness literacy for kids. I created “The Wellness Milestones Chart” to help families understand how to prepare kids to take care of themselves as they transition to adulthood.
I talk a lot about “growing up” with my tween and teen patients to help make sure that they have evidence-based resources to address both the physical and the emotional elements of development. It’s important to me that they know that they’re not alone with their big feelings and emotions, which is why I also initiate conversations about emotional wellness and literacy with my patients and their parents.
What has been the most rewarding moment of your career to date?
The great thing about pediatrics is that it isn’t about that one heroic moment. Instead, it’s about all the little victories that you help your patients and their families accomplish. And I love being there for all of it — the little and big stuff included.
I’ve worked with thousands of families on the difficult topics that most impact their kids’ health, and it’s continually rewarding to watch them go from conflicted to confident through our work together and to share in their relief and joy when things go right.
What’s your go-to way to unwind? My family is on a big tea kick right now and we’ve been learning a lot about herbs and about making our own tea blends. Most evenings you can find us making and drinking tea with a lot of calming herbs like lavender, rose, calendula, tulsi, passionflower, and mint. Aside from that, I love being outside, whether that’s hiking, swimming, skiing, or running.
Where’s your family’s favorite outdoor destination in Colorado? We really like wilderness backpacking and have had some wonderful times at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and various hot springs nearby.
Do you have a beloved book, TV show, or podcast of late? I read to my kids every night and my oldest has been really enjoying historical fiction books recently. I also love listening to podcasts, both alone and with my family. Two of my recent favorites include The Neurodiversity Podcast and Circle Round.
What’s one healthful habit you’d love to see patients adopt? I strongly believe that a plant-based diet is the healthiest for humans and the planet. I would really love to see more families go plant-based and feel confident and safe about making that transition.
You can learn more about Dr. Alison Levine here.
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