The Optimized Doctor

Can we be too efficient?


“We were all of us cogs in a great machine which sometimes rolled forward, nobody knew where, sometimes backwards, nobody knew why.” – Ernst Toller

A nice feature of the Apple watch is the stopwatch. With it, I can discreetly click the timer and watch seconds tick away. Tap. There’s one lap. Tap. Two. Tap. That was a quick visit, 6 minutes and 42 seconds. Tap. Under 2 minutes to close the chart. Let’s see if I can beat it. Tap. Tap. What if I moved my Mayo stand over to this side of the room? How about a sign, “All patients must have clothes off if you want a skin exam.” You think ob.gyns. are quick from skin to baby in a stat C-section? You should see how fast I can go from alcohol wipe to Drysol on a biopsy. Seconds. Tick, tick, tap.

Every day I look for ways to go faster. This is not so I can be out the door by 3. Rather, it’s simply to make it through the day without having to log on after we put the kids to bed at night.

Speaking of bedtimes, another nice feature of the Apple watch is the timer. With it, I can set a timer and a lovely chimey alarm will go off. This comes in handy with 3-year-olds. “Sloan, in two minutes we are going to brush your teeth.” Ding. “Sloan, you have one minute to get your pajamas on.” Ding. “Sloanie, I’ll give you 3 more minutes to put the kitties away, then get into bed.” Ding, ding, ding ...

As you can see, using the stopwatch to time a bedtime routine would be demoralizing. If you’ve tried to put a toddler to bed in summer you know. They explore every option to avoid sleeping: one more book (that would make 3), “accidentally” putting their pajamas on backwards, offering to brush their teeth a second time. And once the light is off, “Papa, I have to potty.” No, bedtime routines cannot be standardized. They resist being made efficient.

In contrast, we think of seeing patients as a standardizable process; work to be optimized. This idea that work should be as efficient as possible came from the father of business management, Frederick Taylor. Taylor, a mechanical engineer, observed inefficiencies on the factory floor. His work was seminal in the development of the second industrial revolution. Before then no one had applied scientific rigor to productivity. His book, “The Principles of Scientific Management,” written in 1909, is considered the most influential management book of the 20th century. He was the first to use stopwatches to perform time studies, noting how long each task took with the belief that there was one best way. The worker was an extension of the machine, tuned by management such that he was as efficient as possible.


Workers on the first moving assembly line put together magnetos and flywheels for 1913 Ford autos, Highland Park, Michigan.

Others built on this idea including Frank and Lillian Gilbreth who added video recording, creating time and motion studies to further drive efficiency. This technique is still used in manufacturing and service industries today, including health care. In the 1980s, W. Edwards Deming modernized this effort, empowering workers with techniques taken from Japanese manufacturing. This, too, has been widely adopted in health care and evolved into the Lean and Lean Six Sigma quality movements about a decade ago. The common theme is to reduce waste to make health care as efficient as possible. Lately, this idea seems to have failed us.

The difficulty lies in the belief that efficient is always better. I’m unsure. Efficiency helps to reduce costs. It can also improve access. Yet, it comes at a cost. Eliminating slack concomitantly eliminates resilience. As such, when unexpected and significant changes impact a system, the gears of productivity jam. It’s in part why we are seeing rising wait times and patient dissatisfaction post pandemic. There was no slack and our system was too brittle.

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

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

A more insidious downside on the drive to efficiency lies in the nature of what we do. We aren’t factory workers punching out widgets, we’re physicians caring for people and people cannot be standardized. In this way, seeing patients is more like putting a toddler to bed than like assembling an iPhone. There will always be by-the-ways, basal cells hiding behind the ear, traffic jams, and bags of products that they want to review. Not sure how to use your fluorouracil? Let’s go over it again. Need to talk more about why you have granuloma annulare? Let me explain. Despite Taylor’s vision, some work simply cannot be optimized. And shouldn’t.

“Where’s my 11:30 patient who checked in half an hour ago?!” I asked my medical assistant. “Oh, she had to go to the bathroom.” Tap.

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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