The Optimized Doctor

How to not miss something


Oh sure, you can treat hand dermatitis by phone. But you might miss something. I almost did.

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

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

It’s a mad, mad, mad world. In California, we seem bent on swelling our curve. We’d just begun bringing our patients back into the office. We felt safe, back to business. Then air raid sirens again. Retreat to the Underground. Minimize waiting room waiting, convert to telephone and video. Do what we can to protect our patients and people.

As doctors, we’ve gotten proficient at being triage nurses, examining each appointment request, and sorting who should be seen in person and who could be cared for virtually. We do it for every clinic now.

My 11 a.m. patient last Thursday was an 83-year-old Filipino man with at least a 13-year history of hand dermatitis (based on his long electronic medical record). He had plenty of betamethasone refills. There were even photos of his large, brown hands in his chart. Grandpa hands, calloused by tending his garden and scarred from fixing bikes, building sheds, and doing oil changes for any nephew or niece who asked. The most recent uploads showed a bit of fingertip fissuring, some lichenified plaques. Not much different than they looked after planting persimmon trees a decade ago. I called him early that morning to offer a phone appointment. Perhaps I could save him from venturing out.

“I see that you have an appointment with me in a few hours. If you’d like, I might be able to help you by phone instead.” “Oh, thank you, doc,” he replied. “It’s so kind of you to call. But doc, I think maybe it is better if I come in to see you.” “Are you sure?” “Oh, yes. I will be careful.”

He checked in at 10:45. When I walked into the room he was wearing a face mask and a face shield – good job! He also had a cane and U.S. Navy Destroyer hat. And on the bottom left of his plastic shield was a sticker decal of a U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer, dress blue insignia. His hands looked just like the photos: no purpura, plenty of lentigines. Fissures, calluses, lichenified plaques. I touched them. In the unaffected areas, his skin was remarkably soft. What stories these hands told. “I was 20 years in the Navy, doc,” he said. “I would have stayed longer but my wife, who’s younger, wanted me back home.” He talked about his nine grandchildren, some of whom went on to join the navy too – but as officers, he noted with pride. Now he spends his days caring for his wife; she has dementia. He can’t stay long because she’s in the waiting room and is likely to get confused if alone for too long.

We quickly reviewed good hand care. I ordered clobetasol ointment. He was pleased; that seemed to work years ago and he was glad to have it again.

So, why did he need to come in? Clearly I could have done this remotely. “Thank you so much for seeing me, doc,” as he stood to walk out. “Proper inspections have to be done in person, right?” Yes, I thought. Otherwise, you might miss something.

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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