Among Physicians, Surgeons Are the Best Golfers

Diana Phillips

December 11, 2018

Contrary to the popular stereotype, not all physicians love to play golf. In fact, only a small percentage of physicians in the United States actually spend time on the links, but of those that do, surgeons have the strongest game, a study has shown. 

In an analysis of golfing patterns among physicians, Gal Koplewitz, Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, and colleagues estimated that only 4.1% of 1,029,088 US physicians in the Doximity physician database have logged their scores in the Golf Handicap and Information Network (GHIN) — a handicap system for amateur golfers — as of August 1, 2018.

This rate rises to 5.5% among physicians who are men and drops to 1.3% among physicians who are women. Most of the physicians (89.5%) who have actively logged their scores into the network are men, the authors report in their article published in the Christmas issue of BMJ.

To test the validity of the physician golfer stereotype and further analyze physician golfing patterns, researchers linked physicians in the Doximity database by full name and state of residence to the GHIN database, extracting information on the number of games a physician logged in the previous 6 months and golf handicap.

"We analyzed the proportion of physicians who regularly play golf, both overall and according to physician sex, age, and specialty. We also analyzed the frequency of golf rounds in the previous 6 months," they write. "Finally, to determine which specialties had the best golfers we analyzed how players' handicaps varied across physician specialty."

Of the 41,692 physicians in the Doximity database linked to the GHIN database, men aged 61 to 70 years were the most likely to play golf (6.9%). "It is unclear whether this is a generational preference or simply a matter of having more leisure time later in one's career," the authors state. Women aged 31 to 35 years were the least likely to play golf (0.8%, respectively).

When considered by specialty, orthopedic surgeons, urologists, plastic surgeons, and otolaryngologists were best represented among the golfing ranks, with respective participation rates of 8.8%, 8.1%, 7.5%, and 7.1%.

By contrast, internal medicine and infectious disease specialists were far less likely to play, with participation rates at 2.9% for both specialties.

Compared with the average handicap of physician golfers overall (16.0), vascular surgeons, thoracic surgeons, and orthopedic surgeons had the best respective average handicaps of 14.7, 14.8, and 14.9. The average handicaps of endocrinologists, dermatologist, and oncologist were greater than 17.0. "This reflects substantially better golf skills on the part of the former three specialties," the authors write.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the more golfers in a given specialty, the lower the average handicap for that specialty (correlation coefficient, −0.5; P = .002). Similarly, better performance was observed in golfers who played more (correlation coefficient, −0.2; P = .004).

When considered by the physician gender, in the first 6 months of 2018, men played an average of 14.8 games and had an average overall handicap of 15.0, and women played an average of 12.1 games and had an average overall handicap of 25.2.

"Given research that suggests male physicians spend almost 2 hours less than female physicians each day on household responsibilities, even among dual physician couples who have similar reported work, does the substantially greater time spent by male physicians on the golf course explain some of this discrepancy?" the authors ask.

There is limited scientific evidence that has assessed the association, if any, between the amount of time a physician plays golf and patient, physician, and organizational outcomes, the authors note.

Although the current study provides insight into physicians' golfing habits, "the association between golfing and patient outcomes, costs of care, and physician well-being remain unknown," the authors write.

"Is patient mortality associated with the amount of time a patient's physician plays golf (either negatively, because physicians release stress on the golf course, or positively, owing to decreased availability and time spent away from developing clinical skill)? Do costs of care increase and patient outcomes worsen in the days after a physician has had a bad round of golf?" ask the authors. Research into these considerations may be warranted, they conclude.

Support for this research was provided by the National Institutes of Health. The authors have reported no relevant financial relationships.

BMJ. Published online December 10, 2018. Abstract

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