The Optimized Doctor

The expert trap


When you fly as a physician, there’s always a chance you’ll get a free drink. It’s not free, of course. For at least a few minutes, you worked. “Is there a physician onboard? – Ah, just how badly do you want that vodka tonic?

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

I ring my call button, as I’m sure you do. (It’s worth it to see the flight attendant’s face when I reply: “I’m a dermatologist.”) Last time it was for a 68-year-old man who was vomiting. There was no rash.

I responded along with a pediatrician and an ER nurse – gratitude is an ER nurse at 38,000 feet. The patient had chemotherapy-induced nausea. We three managed to get him well enough to finish the flight. Our ER nurse team member ran the show; she was excellent. She asked all the right questions and helped us all make good decisions. Unlike in clinic, I wasn’t an expert here despite my MD.

Several weeks ago, I saw a patient in the office with severe psoriasis. She stood before me erythrodermic. As I was adjusting her orders, I stepped out of the office to call one of my partners for her opinion. She examined the patient and declared: “I don’t think it’s psoriasis. Despite that biopsy, I think this is chronic eczema.” Brilliant.

In contrast to the former story, I was an expert in my office. And yet, success depended in both instances on my recognizing a cognitive bias: I don’t know everything, and worse, I sometimes don’t realize what I don’t know.

There are several biases of overconfidence. One is the expert trap: You believe you are an expert or correct, but you are wrong and you don’t see it. It’s a common mistake and manifests as overconfidence in our own abilities. For example, what decade did Hawaii join the union? Who is on the 20-dollar bill? Which is the farthest planet? You might be 90% confident of your answers, but most of us are more confident than we ought to be. Chances are you’ll be wrong on one. Recognizing this is hard. And yet, it’s what separates the good from the great clinicians.

Short of having your medical assistant whisper in your ear each day “Memento stultus” (remember you’re stupid), avoiding this bias is difficult. Signs that you might be trapped in an expert mindset are: 1. You believe your patients’ failure to improve is due to lack of adherence to your plan. 2. You cannot recall the last time you tried a new treatment. 3. You never ask others for second opinions. 4. Your colleagues stop asking for your opinion. 5. A flight attendant asks if you would mind returning to your seat rather than help with a medical situation.

If you want to be a better doctor, try working on your sense of self-importance. Remember your limitations and those of medicine. Be methodical in questioning your assumptions. Could you be wrong? Could the data you have be misleading? What are you missing? Ask a colleague to review some of your charts or spend time with you during procedures. Join (or start!) a journal club. Share your difficult cases with others and take note of how their advice differs from your approach.

By recognizing when you might be wrong and humbly stepping aside or taking the time to learn, you might just earn that free drink.

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at

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