A long-lived stereotype about doctors is that they are avid golf players. In a new study, featured in the Christmas issue of The BMJ, specialists from the Harvard Medical School tackle this common belief head-on.

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Are doctors really into golf?

Every year in the holiday season, the prestigious medical journal The BMJ publishes a special issue that takes the road less traveled by research, answering some of the questions that readers perhaps did not know they even had.

Over the years, respected specialists from far and wide have looked at topics as diverse as what side effects sword-swallowing might bring about, what kind of chocolates people prefer, and whether skipping your “beauty sleep” can actually alter your appearance.

This year, a group of researchers from the Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, has decided to find out whether the stereotype that doctors love to spend their leisure time on the golf course is actually true.

In their study, which appears in the 2018 special Christmas edition of The BMJ, first author Gal Koplewitz and the team turned to two databases to figure out if physicians in the United States are as passionate about the best club to get a ball out of a bunker as the public believed.

Koplewitz and colleagues analyzed data from Doximity, the database of medical doctors in the U.S., and Golf Handicap and Information Network, the database that amateur golfers use to record their playing scores.

They found that, of the 1,029,088 doctors who appeared on Doximity, 41,692 (4.1 percent) were also registered on the Golf Handicap and Information Network. This suggests that at least 4.1 percent of all U.S. physicians play golf in their spare time.

But the team did not stop there. They wanted to know which medical specialties generated the most golfers and how likely physicians are to play golf, considering their age and biological sex.

Cross-referential analysis revealed that older male doctors, aged between 61 and 70, were the most likely to be golfers, while female doctors ages 31–35 were the least likely to engage in the sport.

In fact, only 1.3 percent of all female doctors played golf, accounting for only 10.5 percent of all doctors who participated in the pastime.

When it came to specialized doctors, the researchers saw that fewer than 3 percent took an interest in the sport, though among them, some were likely to be better golf players, overall.

More specifically, orthopedic surgeons, urologists, and plastic surgeons seemed to have a weakness for golf, and they also tended to have lower handicaps, meaning that they were more skilled at the sport, and they scored higher.

The most skilled golfers among the specialists were thoracic surgeons, vascular surgeons, and orthopedic surgeons, who had approximately 15 percent lower handicaps, compared with endocrinologists, dermatologists, and oncologists.

Still, even the most accomplished golfers among medical doctors do not seem to hold a candle to professional players. “Overall, physicians [are], at best, average golfers,” the researchers write.

Doctors have an average handicap of about 16 — or 15 in the case of male doctors and 25 in the case of female doctors — whereas professional players have an average handicap of zero or less.

However, if you were hoping for better news about your physician’s golfing skills, all is not lost. The researchers warn that theirs was an observational study, which only took into account U.S.-based doctors, so it cannot offer a solid overview of all physicians’ golfing skills and habits.

At the same time, the authors report that:

[It] is likely that more physicians play golf than estimated by our study. We also have no reason to believe that physicians from different specialties would systematically differ in reporting to [the golf players’] database, which suggests our relative rankings of participation in golf between specialties should be accurate.”

Koplewitz and the team note that further research is also needed to gain perspective on how doctors’ interest in golf may affect the care they provide to their patients, among other outcomes.

“The association between golfing and patient outcomes, costs of care, and physician well-being remain unknown,” the authors explain.