The Optimized Doctor

Applying lessons from Oprah to your practice


In my last column, I explained how I’m like Tom Brady. I’m not really. Brady is a Super Bowl–winning quarterback worth over $200 million. No, I’m like Oprah. Well, trying anyway.

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

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

Brady and Oprah, in addition to being gazillionaires, have in common that they’re arguably the GOATs (Greatest Of All Time) in their fields. Watching Oprah interview Meghan Markle and Prince Harry was like watching Tom Brady on the jumbotron – she made it look easy. Her ability to create conversation and coax information from guests is hall-of-fame good. But although they are both admirable, trying to be like Brady is useful only for next Thanksgiving when you’re trying to beat your cousins from Massachusetts in touch football. Trying to be like Oprah can help you be better in clinic tomorrow. If we break down what she’s doing, it’s just fundamentals done exceedingly well.

1. Prepare ahead. It’s clear that Oprah has binders of notes about her guests and thoroughly reviewed them before she invites them to sit down. We should do the same. Open the chart and read as much as you can before you open the door. Have important information in your head so you don’t have to break from your interview to refer to it.

2. Sprinkle pleasantry. She’d never start an interview with: So why are you here? Nor should we. Even one nonscripted question or comment can help build a little rapport before getting to the work.

3. Be brief. Oprah gets her question out fast, then gets out of the way. And as a bonus, this is the easiest place to shave a few minutes from your appointments from your own end. Think for a second before you speak and try to find the shortest route to your question. Try to keep your questions to just a sentence or two.

4. Stay on it. Once you’ve discovered something relevant, stay with it, resisting the urge to finish the review of symptoms. This is not just to make a diagnosis, but as importantly, trying to diagnose “the real reason” for the visit. Then, when the question is done, own the transition. Oprah uses: “Let’s move on.” This is a bit abrupt for us, but it can be helpful if used sparingly and gently. I might soften this a little by adding “I want to be sure we have enough time to get through everything for you.”

5. Wait. A few seconds seems an eternity on the air (and in clinic), but sometimes the silent pause is just what’s needed to help the patient expand and share.

6. Be nonjudgmental. Most of us believe we’re pretty good at this, yet, it’s sometimes a blind spot. It’s easy to blame the obese patient for his stasis dermatitis or the hidradenitis patient who hasn’t stop smoking for her cysts. It also helps to be nontransactional. If you make patients feel that you’re asking questions only to extract information, you’ll never reach Oprah level.

7. Be in the moment. It is difficult, but when possible, avoid typing notes while you’re still interviewing. We’re not just there to get the facts, we’re also trying to get the story and that sometimes takes really listening.

I’m no more like Oprah than Brady, of course. But it is more fun to close my eyes and imagine myself being her when I see my next patient. That is, until Thanksgiving. Watch out, Bedards from Attleboro.

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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