Jocks Make Better Docs

by Carole Jackson Bottom Line Health

Want to find out if a doctor is any good?

Sure, you can Google his/her name to find out where he trained or what medical awards he has won…or ask friends and relatives for their opinions.

But what about asking if he excelled at playing a team sport in his younger years?

It may seem like a strange question, but a recent study suggests that it’s not, well, completely out of left field.

Researchers in the department of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that prior excellence in a team sport was a better predictor of overall performance as a doctor in their residency program than the more standard criteria of medical school grades, standardized test scores and letters of recommendation.


Who would have thought that joining, say, a soccer team would boost medical skills more than cramming for an exam?

For the study, researchers asked faculty members to rate 46 recent graduates of the residency program with regard to their overall quality as clinicians. The faculty members rated the graduates using a five-point scale, with 1 meaning “should not have graduated” and 5 meaning “outstanding—I would choose him/her as my doctor.”

The researchers then reviewed each graduate’s residency application, looking at factors such as medical school grades, standardized test scores and letters of recommendation, which all are standard criteria used to judge an applicant’s likelihood of success in a residency program.

They also sent the graduates a simple questionnaire regarding their pre-residency experience in both athletics and music.

Questions included…

    • Do you have established excellence in a team sport? (The researchers made judgment calls in terms of what was considered a “team sport.” If the individual was on a track team, for example, being on a relay team would count, but throwing a javelin would not. The person had to have worked with others in order to win. )
    • Do you have established excellence in an orchestra, band or choir?

Results: Researchers found that there was no correlation between medical school grades, standardized test scores or letters of recommendation and the faculty assessments of who ended up being a good doctor. However, there was a significant correlation between achievement in a team sport and a graduate’s faculty rating. (There was a slight correlation between achievement in music and faculty ratings, but it wasn’t statistically significant.)

To learn more about the study and its findings, I spoke to lead author Richard A. Chole, MD, PhD.

One limitation to the study worth noting is that the particular residency program that was studied is highly competitive. In other words, all the doctors were extremely bright, so there wasn’t an extremely wide range of grades or test scores. “In a residency program where there’s a greater spectrum of grades and test scores, the correlation may not be as strong,” said Dr. Chole. Nevertheless, the findings point to a very intriguing link.


The study shows that there’s a lot more to being a good doctor than being an “A” student, Dr. Chole told me. “What our findings illustrate is that the best doctors tend to be the ones who are good at participating with their colleagues as part of a team, and playing a team sport is great preparation for that,” he said.

So instead of asking our doctors for their diplomas, perhaps we should be asking them for their high school and college yearbooks, so we can see whether they were on basketball, baseball, football, soccer, lacrosse or other sports teams!

Source: Richard A. Chole, MD, PhD, chairman of the department of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The study was published in Archives of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.