When Wendy Roberts, MD, applied to Sarah Lawrence College in New York, a career in medicine was far from her mind. “I was going to major in dance,” she says. “I danced for the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Garden State Ballet.”
Once enrolled at Sarah Lawrence, however, her dream hit a snag that changed the course of her career. A number of students had matriculated early and snapped up all the open spots in the dance courses she needed. “I was hysterical. I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “In order to fill my schedule, I had a choice to take either German philosophy or chemistry. I took chemistry and excelled at it.”
Dr. Robert’s grandfather was a chemistry teacher. “He told me that the world didn’t need another black dancer. He said I was gifted and needed to go to medical school,” she says. She changed her major and was accepted into Stanford University Medical School. After completing a dermatology residency at Los Angeles County King Drew Medical Center, Dr. Roberts began a fellowship in dermatopathology at New York University Medical Center.
“I love beauty and I love the microscope,” says Dr. Roberts. “Dermatology allowed me to blend those interests with surgery.” She pursued a dermatopathology fellowship so she could read her own slides without having to rely on others. “When I did a biopsy, I wanted to know the diagnosis myself,” she says. “I didn’t want to send the slides out. I wanted to see the patient, diagnose him, treat him, biopsy him and read the slides.” This desire to care for patients from diagnosis through recovery gave Dr. Roberts the impetus to open her own private practice in Rancho Mirage, California, 23 years ago.
Today, she is the director of Wendy E. Roberts, MD; founder and course director of the Generational Dermatology (G DERM) Palm Springs Symposium, a four-day annual conference that focuses on medical, surgical and aesthetic dermatology; and Palm Springs Life magazine has recognized her as a “Top Doctor” for 12 consecutive years.
Dr. Roberts was working in academics at Loma Linda University in California when the opportunity to branch out on her own first arose. A colleague asked her to cover his practice on the weekends and, through him, she learned that a local dermatologist was interested in selling a failing practice in Rancho Mirage. “It was great because I got a really good deal. The downside was, I didn’t have any patients so I had to build it from the ground up,” she says. “People thought I was crazy, but it was a fun process.”
Her philosophy of preventive care—which she refers to as “Generational Dermatology”—helped her attract a loyal patient base. “It involves combining medical, cosmetic, surgical and oncologic strategies over the decades of a patient’s lifetime to optimize skin performance,” she says.
She analyzes patients’ skin, hair and nails, and monitors the changes that occur over time. Her treatments are based on the four levels of preventive care, which she described in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology (December 2013). Primary prevention reduces the risk factors before a disease or condition occurs. Secondary prevention allows for early detection while the patient is asymptomatic, in order to prevent, postpone or attenuate the condition. Tertiary prevention involves treating an existing symptomatic disease to alleviate it or delay its progression. Finally, quaternary preventions mitigate unnecessary/excessive interventions.
“Generational dermatology is all about practicing in the primary and secondary versus tertiary and quaternary levels,” she says. “It’s like that movie Back to the Future. If you could go back 20 years in time and counsel your patients, what would you tell them?
“First, you would want to know if they look like anyone in their family,” she continues. “These relatives can show you what’s coming down the road. Does the patient have hair loss patterns like his father? Does she have skin texture or nails like her mother had?”
Photography by Cory Sorensen.