The Optimized Doctor

Sick call


They call me and I go.

– William Carlos Williams

I never get sick. I’ve never had the flu. When everyone’s got a cold, I’m somehow immune. The last time I threw up was June 29th, 1980. You see, I work out almost daily, eat vegan, and sleep plenty. I drink gallons of pressed juice and throw down a few high-quality supplements. Yes, I’m that guy: The one who never gets sick. Well, I was anyway.

I am no longer that guy since our little girl became a supersocial little toddler. My undefeated welterweight “never-sick” title has been obliterated by multiple knockouts. One was a wicked adenovirus that broke the no-vomit streak. At one point, I lay on the luxury gray tile bathroom floor hoping to go unconscious to make the nausea stop. I actually called out sick that day. Then with a nasty COVID-despite-vaccine infection. I called out again. Later with a hacking lower respiratory – RSV?! – bug. Called out. All of which our 2-year-old blonde, curly-haired vector transmitted to me with remarkable efficiency.

In fact, we reached the high water mark for physicians calling out sick from my department this year. That’s saying a lot. Our docs, like most, don’t call out sick.

We physicians have legendary stamina. Compared with other professionals, we are no less likely to become ill but a whopping 80% less likely to call out sick.

Presenteeism is our physician version of Omerta, a code of honor to never give in even at the expense of our, or our family’s, health and well-being. Every medical student is regaled with stories of physicians getting an IV before rounds or finishing clinic after their water broke. Why? In part it’s an indoctrination into this thing of ours we call Medicine: An elitist club that admits only those able to pass O-chem and hold diarrhea. But it is also because our medical system is so brittle that the slightest bend causes it to shatter. When I cancel a clinic, patients who have waited weeks for their spot have to be sent home. And for critical cases or those patients who don’t get the message, my already slammed colleagues have to cram the unlucky ones in between already-scheduled appointments. The guilt induced by inconveniencing our colleagues and our patients is more potent than dry heaves. And so we go. Suck it up. Sip ginger ale. Load up on acetaminophen. Carry on. This harms not only us, but also patients whom we put in the path of transmission. We become terrible 2-year-olds.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

Of course, it’s not always easy to tell if you’re sick enough to stay home. But the stigma of calling out is so great that we often show up no matter what symptoms. A recent Medscape survey of physicians found that 85% said they had come to work sick in 2022.

We can do better. Perhaps creating sick-leave protocols could help? For example, if you have a fever above 100.4, have contact with someone positive for influenza, are unable to take POs, etc. then stay home. So might building rolling slack into schedules to accommodate the inevitable physician illness, parenting emergency, or death of an beloved uncle. And if there is one thing artificial intelligence could help us with, it would be smart scheduling. Can’t we build algorithms for anticipating and absorbing these predictable events? I’d take that over an AI skin cancer detector any day. Yet this year we’ll struggle through the cold and flu (and COVID) season again and nothing will have changed.

Our daughter hasn’t had hand, foot, and mouth disease yet. It’s not a question of if, but rather when she, and her mom and I, will get it. I hope it happens on a Friday so that my Monday clinic will be bearable when I show up.

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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