Healthcare should learn from football, say researchers

Harry Redknapp
Image caption Could Harry Redknapp have the right skills to be a manager in the NHS?

Researchers say medicine has a lot to learn from football about developing new approaches.

A paper in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal argues that football analysis is often more penetrating than assessment of clinical evidence.

The authors say football is better at measuring what matters most.

They conclude that the NHS could benefit from some of the skills deployed by top football managers.

The paper says football, like healthcare, is complex.

However it argues that when it comes to looking for improvements, football could teach medicine some important lessons.

The lead author, Professor Alexander Clark from the University of Alberta, makes the point by comparing some of his own characteristics with those of the footballing legend Lionel Messi. Both have brown hair, a dominant right foot and short stature.

Both, he notes, have scored lots of goals playing at number 10.

But he acknowledges that close observation, informed assessment and knowing the context of their successes lead one quickly to conclude that the attacking Argentine midfielder is "infinitely preferable".

He suggests that too often this analytical approach is missing from the field of healthcare interventions, which he says has a tendency to focus on what is easily described rather than what matters most.

Learn from failure

The paper says football is better at recognising underlying factors that can affect performance, including a single player's attitude, a muddy pitch, injuries and the impact of a hostile crowd.

"Healthcare researchers can learn from football by describing the important components of interventions more comprehensively and, irrespective of results, using research approaches that better address the complexity of interventions and seek to explain outcomes better."

The paper argues that other lessons for healthcare include a willingness to recognise and learn from failure, and exploring in detail not just whether team tactics - or medical treatment - work, but why.

Professor Clark says the most successful football managers have qualities that could help the health service raise its game.

"The best managers can take people and help them perform above themselves. That's what the NHS needs."

Right skills

Dr George Rae, a GP based in Whitley Bay whose hopes of a career in football were cut short by injury, agrees there are shared qualities. As a young player he witnessed at first hand the footballing genius of Jock Stein.

He says the QPR manager Harry Redknapp has the right skills.

"He is someone who can make good use of resources, adapts to conditions, and delivers outcomes that people are satisfied with."

The positives "outcomes" for football fans presented in the paper include "happier life disposition" and "spousal harmony".

However it also notes that fans tend to see themselves as key ingredients to success when results are favourable, but downplay their contributions to defeats.

Experience counts

Dr Andy Franklyn-Miller, a leading expert in sport and exercise medicine, emphasised the importance of experience.

"Management of health is a time-learned process. Physicians develop with maturity and understand through experience what works and what does not.

"This is the same in football management. There will be young superstars but age and experience count, and the devolvement of running hospital departments away from senior physicians and surgeons is a concept which would not be found in elite sport.

"You would not find Sir Alex Ferguson being managed by a newly qualified administrative business studies graduate."

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