Athletes becoming doctors: Why do athletes excel in the medical profession?

In a 2012 research paper titled ‘Predictors of Future Success in Otolaryngology Residency Applicants’ (Richard A. Chole, MD, PhD; M. Allison Ogden, MD) found that one of the few predictive conclusions that could be made from the study was that “prior excellence in a team sport may suggest continued success in the health care team”.

Do athletes really make good doctors? Athletes are known for their drive and determination, and so are doctors. But can you excel at both?

Defining excellence in a physician is a complex judgment, but it’s generally agreed that the following characteristics are present in the medical profession: knowledgeable, good judgement, ethical, competent and skillful, cooperative, thorough, empathetic, available, and works well with others.

In that 2012 study, the researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis were looking to see whether such objective measures as USMLE test scores, grades, and letters of recommendation correlated with higher faculty ratings (which take into account practice-based learning, interpersonal and communication skills, good judgement, empathy, patient care, and medical knowledge.) 

What they found, instead, was that those who got the highest faculty ratings were those with “established excellence in a team sport.”

While the researchers cautioned that not all residency program directors should rush to look for student-athletes, in particular, the study did isolate two traits of student-athletes that might translate into success in medicine: time management skills and teamwork.

M. Roy Wilson, MD, president of Wayne State University and former chair of the AAMC Board of Directors, said “Increasingly health care is a team sport. You have to be able to get along with and work with other health care professionals. You have to round on patients and people from other disciplines who come from other perspectives.

“It’s important to take their perspectives into account and to synthesise all of that in a way that benefits the patients.”

Athletes also prove to be leaders in the workforce, especially women, who last year made up the majority of both applicants and enrollees in medical school but currently represent just a fraction of department chairs and medical school deans, according to AAMC data.

A 2015 study conducted by espnW and EY found that 80% of female Fortune 500 executives played competitive sports at some time in their lives and that 65% of those on the 2017 Fortune List of Most Powerful Women played sports competitively in either high school, college, or both (source: AAMC).

Both of these studies suggest that an athlete’s ability to understand their own performance – technically, tactically, physically, and psychologically – not only helps propel their own athletic careers and their team’s success but also puts them in a position to transition to other important professions and use their unique skill sets to fight the cause and protect humanity.