If tennis players have coaches, why don’t doctors?

25th January 2012 by Judith Harvey

If tennis players have coaches, why don’t doctors?

I make no apologies for taking a look at another article by Atul Gawande, the Boston doctor who writes common sense. In a recent edition of the New Yorker he asked why doctors don’t have coaches.

When he turned 45 Gawande realised that his professional performance had stopped getting better. He’s a surgeon, so there are obvious performance measures; he assumed he had reached his peak. Then, at a conference, he had time for a game of tennis – he’s a keen player – and he took a lesson with a young coach. Gawande was amazed to find how much that one lesson improved his game. He went on to reflect that even Wimbledon champions have coaches, but surgeons don’t. He wondered whether a medical coach could improve his surgery. A senior surgeon agreed to observe him operating, and suggested some simple changes in his practice, such as the way he draped the patient. Gawande’s surgical performance started improving again.

Coaching, Gawande suggests, is an effective way to break entrenched habits – to teach an old dog new tricks. He quotes a study of teachers being taught new skills. After a workshop only 10% would take up a new skill. Practical demonstrations worked a little better. But when teachers had a coach watching as they tried out a new skill in the classroom, 90% of them absorbed it into their repertoire.

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