The Optimized Doctor

What Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes can teach us about physicians


Warning: This article will be about Tom Brady. If you love Tom Brady, hate Tom Brady, previously loved and now hate Tom Brady, I’m just warning you so you’ll be in the right frame of mind to continue. (If you don’t know who Tom Brady is, he’s Gisele’s husband).

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

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

Brady, who plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has played in the NFL for 21 seasons, an unbelievable number given the average career for a quarterback is 3 years. He’s 43 years old and was the oldest player in a Super Bowl, ever. He faced Patrick Mahomes, the quarterback for the opposing Kansas City Chiefs. Mahomes is one of the most athletic and talented quarterbacks of all time, and Mahomes is nearly 20 years younger than Brady. Yet, in a shot heard around the NFL world, Brady won.

But, was a Brady victory so shocking? We in medicine know, there is much value packed into experience. Hot-shot residents may have a lot of moxie and talent, but experienced doctors often prevail by simply making sound decisions and avoiding mistakes. In our department, we’ve been discussing this lately: We’re hiring two dermatologists and we’re fortunate to have some amazing candidates apply. Some, like Mahomes, are young all-stars with outstanding ability and potential, right out of residency. Others, Brady-like, have been in practice for years and are ready to move to a new franchise.

Our medical group’s experiences are probably similar to many practices: New physicians out of residency often bring energy, inspiration, and ease with the latest therapies, devices, and surgical techniques. Yet, they sometimes struggle with efficiency and unforced errors. Experienced physicians might not know what’s hot, but they can often see where the best course of action lies, understanding not only the physiology but also the patient in ways that only experience can teach you. Fortunately, for those like me who’ve crossed midlife, there doesn’t seem to be an upper limit to experience – it is possible to keep getting better. Yes, I’m just like Tom Brady. (I wrote this article just to print that line.)

Some of the best doctors I’ve ever seen in action were emeritus physicians. In medical school at Wake Forest University, one of my professors was Dr. Eben Alexander. A retired neurosurgeon, he taught a case-based critical thinking skills class. I recall his brilliant insight and coaching, working through cases that had nothing to do with the brain or with surgery. He used his vast experience and wisdom to teach us how to practice medicine. He was, at that time, nearly 90 years old. Despite having been retired for decades, he was still writing articles and editing journals. He was inspiring. For a minute, he had me thinking I’d like to be a neurosurgeon, so I could be just like Eben Alexander. I did not, but I learned things from him that still impact my practice as a dermatologist today.

I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences of older colleagues or mentors who were the best doctor in the clinic or the O.R. They are the Dr. Anthony Faucis, not just practicing, but leading while in their 8th or 9th decade. We are all so fortunate that they keep playing.

We’ve not made our final choices on whom to hire, but with two positions, I expect we’ll choose both a young doctor and an experienced one to add to our team. It will be fun to watch and learn from them. Just like it will be fun to watch Tom Brady in the Super Bowl again next year.

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 [email protected].

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