The Optimized Doctor

My choices for best books of 2017


In this month’s column, I am providing my recommendations of what I consider were the best books published in 2017, starting with “Attending: Medicine, Mindfulness and Humanity” by Ronald Epstein, MD, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017). These days, it’s difficult to have a conversation about medicine without mention of mindfulness. Most mindfulness and medicine articles are nothing more than a list of bromides written by people who’ve never seen a patient. Ronald Epstein is not one of them. A practicing family physician and professor of medicine, he is “The Attending,” and uses a play on words to encourage us to attend, or be present. Like a good instructor, he uses stories supported by studies in this book (there are nearly 25 pages of references) to argue why being mindful is essential and how you can strengthen your mindfulness muscles in your practice. Mastering these skills will help you become a better diagnostician and reduce the chance you’ll become a burnout statistic. We physicians “miss more by not seeing than by not knowing,” said physician William Osler, and Dr. Epstein helps us to see.

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

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

The Leading Brain,” by Friederike Fabritius, MS, and Hans W. Hagemann, PhD, (New York: TarcherPerigee, 2017). If you’ve ever wanted to browse the self-help aisle of your nearby bookstore, let me save you the trip. Most of what’s there is empty word calories. What is of nutritional value has been summarized in a hundred or so pages in “The Leading Brain.” The book is an easily digestible summary of research and recommendations packaged for executives and professionals like us. The first two-thirds of the book focus on how to achieve your optimal performance, while the remaining third focuses on teams. You might not think about how our environment affects our performance or why surprise helps motivate teams. You will after reading this.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry,” by Neil de Grasse Tyson, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017). For no other reason than you’d like to be the compelling conversationalist at your next party, get this book. It is the lightest take I’ve read on the heaviest of subject matters. One can’t help but be fascinated by the universe we call home (there may be others, but you’ll have to get the book to find out). If ever you find yourself the victim of a bad outcome or serious error, reread his last chapter on the cosmic perspective. We all share a mere speck of dust as our home.

The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact,” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017). The Heath brothers are back at it. This book, which focuses on experiences, is closest to our daily lives in medicine. Patient experience surveys are ubiquitous, and more often than not, public, fairly or not. Fortunately, service experiences have key factors that are common and modifiable. In their usual engaging prose, they make those key factors easy to understand and hard to forget. They end each chapter fittingly with a clinic to get you practicing. You and your patients will benefit from what you learn here.

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine,” by Lindsey Fitzharris, PhD, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017). This book is a real treat: a good old-fashioned medical history spiced with a bit of gore. The story of Dr. Joseph Lister’s discovery of antisepsis is a compelling and critical milestone in our history. (Yes, the germ-killing mouthwash, Listerine, was named in his honor.) Dr. Fitzharris, an Oxford scholar on the history of science and medicine, vividly re-creates the world of Victorian medicine with its gritty and sometimes messy pursuit of the truth. Lister was mocked and ostracized for his controversial ideas on the role of microbes in surgical infection before he was lionized. In a year dominated by “fake news,” it’s refreshing to read a story about how truth not only wins in the end but also saves lives.

Autumn,” by Ali Smith, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2017). At the heart of this eloquent novel is the deeply felt, platonic 25-year-long relationship between Elisabeth Demand, a 32-year-old art history lecturer and 101-year-old Daniel Gluck, who is living out his final days in a nursing home. Set in post-Brexit Britain, the book jumps back and forth in time touching on many relevant issues including xenophobia and neo-nationalism, art and beauty, and the ever-evolving definitions of love of family. Some of the most touching moments occur in scenes when Elizabeth and Daniel discuss art and literature and the profound impact it has on their lives. The novel has got me thinking ... perhaps by better understanding art, we can better understand our patients and our roles in their lives.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking,” by Samin Nosrat, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017). If like me, you prefer good old-fashioned cooking to meal replacements and food delivery apps, get this book. Though I don’t plan to dethrone my wife as our family’s chef, I am a much better sous chef after having perused this enlightening and charmingly illustrated cookbook. Ms. Nosrat, who learned how to cook at the famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., demystifies cooking by breaking it down to four essential elements: salt, fat, acid and heat. Master these fundamentals, and you’ll be able to cook good food just about every time.

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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