The Optimized Doctor

The good old days


“It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that. ... But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” –Tony Soprano

If you could choose, would you rather be transported to live 25 years ago in the past or 25 years from now in the future? For me, I’m unsure. Sometimes it feels like our best days are behind us. When I was a kid, we explored life in pond water, watching water fleas and hydra swim under our Child World toy microscopes. Today, kids learn to eat Tide Pods from TikTok. Back when I was young, a doctor’s appointment was a special occasion! My brothers and I had a bath and got dressed in our Sunday best for our appointment with Dr. Bellin, a genteel, gray-haired pediatrician who worked out of his Victorian office with wooden floors and crystal door handles. Contrast that with the appointment I had with a patient the other day, done by telephone while she was in line ordering at Starbucks. I waited patiently for her to give her order.

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

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

This ache I feel for the past is called nostalgia. At one time, it was a diagnosable condition. It was first used by Dr. Johannes Hofer in the 17th century to describe Swiss soldiers fighting in foreign lands. From the Greek, it means “homecoming pain.” Although over time nostalgia has lost its clinical meaning, the feeling of yearning for the past has dramatically gained in prevalence. The word “nostalgia” appears more in print now than at any point since 1800. We are most nostalgic during times of duress, it seems. This, no doubt, is because it’s comforting to think we’d be better off back in pastoral, idyll times, back when work ended at 5 p.m. and cotton balls were soaked in alcohol and office visits ended with a lollipop on a loop.

Of course, the good old days weren’t really better. We have a selective view of history – as many things were contemptible or bad then as now. Yes, Dr. Bellin was the consummate professional, but thank goodness, I didn’t have acute lymphocytic leukemia or Haemophilus influenzae type B or even suffocate under a pile of blankets while sleeping on my stomach. Without doubt, clinically we’re much better today. Also back then, there was hardly a consideration for atrocious racial disparities in care. We’ve not come far, but we are at least better off today than a few decades ago. And what about medicine as a profession? Although he had loads of autonomy and respect, Dr. Bellin also started every day of his 50-year career at 6 a.m. rounding in the newborn nursery before seeing patients in the office 6 days a week. Not many of us would trade our practice for his.

Yet, there’s reasons to be nostalgic. Chart notes might have been barely legible, but at least they served a purpose. The problem-oriented medical record was intended to logically capture and organize data. SOAP notes were invented to help us think better, to get diagnoses correct, to succinctly see progress. Today, notes are written for administrators and payers and patients. As a result, they’re often useless to us.

And although it may have been inconvenient to sit in the waiting room reading Highlights magazine, I’m unsure it was a worse user experience, compared with a chain pharmacy “virtual” doctor visit. (Particularly because you could always drop pennies down the large hot-air iron floor grate in the corner).

The thrumming undercurrent of progress promises artificial intelligence and genomics and wearable diagnostics in our future. But the assumption is the new things will be better suited to our needs than the old. Sometimes, they are not. Sometimes technology diminishes us instead of enhancing us.

I cannot count how many times I’ve hit my head or whacked my shin because our Tesla Model X doors open by magic and of their own accord. Back when I was young, we opened car doors by pulling on the door handle. I sometimes miss those days.

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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