Never challenge these specialists to a game of golf

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published January 22, 2019

Key Takeaways

Do doctors really spend their Wednesday afternoons on the golf course? According to a recent study conducted by Harvard researchers and published in the BMJ, less than 5.0% of physicians play golf. Those who do tend to be older men. But, a word of advice to physicians who do golf: Don’t ever play golf with a surgeon—they seem to be the best at the game.

“It has long been a stereotype of the medical profession that physicians spend much of their leisure time on the golf course—in the United States, one long held belief is that physicians spend Wednesday afternoons on the golf course, and golfing among physicians seems to be common in other countries as well. The validity of these beliefs, however, has never been determined empirically. In particular, the proportion of physicians who regularly play golf, differences in golfing practices across specialties, the specialties with the best golfers, and differences between the golf habits of male and female physicians,” wrote researchers led by Gal Koplewitz, research assistant, Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA.

To determine this, Koplewitz and colleagues conducted an observational cohort study in which they linked the Doximity Database with the Golf Handicap and Information Network database to include 1,029,088 US physicians. Among these physicians, they identified 41,692 (4.1%) who logged their golf scores. A full 89.5% of golfing physicians were men, and among the total study population, only 5.5% of male physicians played golf compared with 1.3% of female physicians.

Physicians most likely to play golf were male physicians aged 61-70 years, who made up 6.9% of the physician golfers, while the least likely to say “fore” were female physicians aged 31-35 years (0.8% of physician golfers). Among men who played, the mean age was 55.2 years.

“We also found that physicians in their late 60s and early 70s were most likely to play golf. It is unclear whether this is a generational preference or simply a matter of having more leisure time later in one’s career,” noted Koplewitz and colleagues.

They then broke their analysis down by physician specialties and found that the golfing rates varied considerably across specialties. The highest proportion of physicians who played golf could be found among orthopedic surgeons (8.8%), urologists (8.1%), plastic surgeons (7.5%), and otolaryngologists (7.1%). Internists and infectious disease specialists comprised the group least likely to play (< 3%).

During the first 6 months of 2018, male physicians played an average of 14.8 games, compared with 12.1 among females. Vascular surgeons played the most (15.5 games), followed closely by neurologists (15.2), while anesthesiologists (13.8), allergists/immunologists (13.8), and general surgeons (13.7) played the least.

The best golfers were vascular surgeons, thoracic surgeons, and orthopedic surgeons, with average handicaps of 14.7, 14.8, and 14.9, respectively. Their handicaps were roughly 15% lower than dermatologists, endocrinologists, and oncologists, who all had average handicaps greater than 17.0.

According to Koplewitz and fellow researchers, physicians were “at best, average golfers.” Overall, the average golfing doctor’s handicap was 16.0, which broke down into 15.0 for male physicians and 25.2 for female physicians. This compares with an average handicap of 0 or less for professional golfers.

“Golfing is common among US male physicians, particularly those in the surgical subspecialties. The association between golfing and patient outcomes, costs of care, and physician wellbeing remain unknown,” concluded Koplewitz et al.

So, for golfing physicians, before you “tee ‘em high and let ‘em fly,” remember: Never golf with a surgeon.

Support for this study was provided by the Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health.

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