The Optimized Doctor

‘Tis the season to reflect and take stock


‘Tis the season to reflect and take stock: What did you do this year? Perhaps you made it to Portugal, or published a paper, or added another doctor to your practice? Maybe you had a baby, or learned a new procedure, or bought a Tesla? Of course, you made (loads of?) money and treated many patients. Imagine if I asked you this in person, what would you reply? And what made you most proud? I’d tell you this story.

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

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

Last week I saw a 50-something-year-old woman for her annual skin screening. She asked if I remembered her mother, who was also my patient. Squinting through my dermatoscope at the nevi on her back, I tried to recall. “Yes, I think so.” (Actually, I was unsure.)

“Well she passed away last week from breast cancer,” she said.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” I replied.

She added: “Yes, yet she lived much longer than we thought. I want you to know we believe it was in large part because of you.”

I stopped and wheeled around to face her. How could that possibly be true? I had only treated her for a simple skin cancer. She explained that I had seen her mom about a year ago and cut out a skin cancer on her face. Her mom was afraid of needles and of surgery. Apparently when she asked me if it would hurt, I replied: “Well, most patients, yes, but not you.” Pausing, I added: “Because you’re a tough old bird.” She laughed. Apparently that warmth I conveyed and display of confidence in her was just what she needed at that moment. She didn’t flinch.

Flying Solo

Not long after, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. When given the news with her children present, she replied, “well, I’ll just fight it. I’m a tough old bird.” It was just what they needed in that moment. “I’m a tough old bird” became their rally cry. Apparently with each stage, surgery, radiation, chemo, they fell back on it. Her son had “Tough Old Bird” made into a magnet and prominently posted on the refrigerator door where she would see it every day.

Sadly, she ultimately succumbed to her disease, but did so later than had been expected and having fought all the way. My patient teared up and asked if she could give me a hug on behalf of her mom. “Thank you, Dr. Benabio. We won’t forget what you did for her.”

I did recall her now, remembering even what exam room she was in when I said it. Yet, I had no idea what I had done. I wonder how many others there were. Of the many things you accomplished this year, try to recall these achievements. Not the psoriasis cleared, or tumor extirpated, or new homes bought. But the comfort and care you brought to the mother with worry, the father with anguish, the daughter with anxieties, or the son with misdeeds.

It is a beautiful, hard, and joyous life we have as physicians, for our “happiness lies in the absorption in some vocation which satisfies the soul; that we are here to add what we can to, not get what we can from life.”* How fortunate are we. Take stock.

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


*William Osler, “Doctor and Nurse.” Address given at Training School for Nurses at Johns Hopkins Hospital, June 4, 1891

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