Industry Voices: 3 lessons for healthcare from the Women's World Cup

Healthcare can learn some lessons from the Women's World Cup, including about teamwork. (Pixabay)

Every four years, people around the world come together to watch athletes compete in what is the world’s most popular sport: soccer (or as it’s known in much of the world, football).

Peter Alperin
Peter Alperin, M.D. (Doximity)

Amid the hype surrounding the 2019 Women’s World Cup, I couldn’t help but notice parallels between the tournament and the U.S. healthcare system. In many ways, the healthcare system has a lot to learn from these talented athletes. Here are three lessons:

1. Level the playing field. Both the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) and the U.S. healthcare system have dealt with their own gender parity issues. Following a 2015 debate about the use of artificial turf vs. real grass during the Women’s World Cup in Canada, FIFA announced that there will be no artificial turf used in the 2023 tournament. Men’s World Cup games have always been played on grass, so it seemed obvious to grant the women’s teams the same courtesy, as artificial turf can alter the speed or flow of the game and is often more dangerous for players.

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That's not the only gender disparity in the sport. Gender pay equity is also a problem for female soccer players, much like the rest of the U.S. workforce. Even though the women’s national soccer team has generated more revenue for the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) than the men’s team over the last three years, they are still paid significantly less. In March, the team filed a lawsuit against the USSF for gender-based discrimination and equal pay, and the federation just recently agreed to enter mediation.

Similarly, in 2018, male physicians continue to earn an average of $1.25 for every $1 female doctors earn. Thankfully, research shows that the gender wage gap is narrowing. Early signals from major metro hubs like Seattle and Los Angeles support this trend, but there are still many communities where men earn far more than their female peers. As women continue to represent a majority of the medical school applicants and will soon make up the majority of physicians in the country, experts predict that the pay gap will narrow. However, the industry still has a long way to go in leveling the playing field for female physicians. Women working in healthcare need to recognize their worth and fight for the same rights as their male colleagues, much like the women’s soccer team did.

2. Lift your teammates up. In almost every World Cup game, teammates are seen helping each other up after a fall, cheering for each other on the field and sidelines and working together toward scoring a goal.

A mix of both rookies and veterans leads to a wide range in experience on the field, which ultimately creates a strong team. Experienced players serve as mentors and leaders in all aspects of the game—from athletic coaching to fostering team solidarity—while junior players keep the team fresh with new techniques and skills. No single player or group of players can defeat the opponent on their own. Through injuries, complicated plays, difficult opponents and losses, this group of individually talented professionals know that teamwork is the only road to success.

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Much like a soccer team, health systems are made up of physicians at all levels. As they step out onto the floor for the first time, residents crave and need guidance from doctors who have practiced for years. It is critical for seasoned physicians to impart wisdom to residents—and to pick them up when they fall. Research shows mentorship throughout residency helps residents feel more prepared for their careers. Additionally, residents can help breathe life into mentors with newfound passion and energy. Whether it’s a complex case, a complicated procedure or the loss of a patient, doctors need to stand together to overcome the inevitable challenges of their profession. By working as a team, doctors can ensure the next round of recruits is well equipped for any roadblocks ahead.

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3. Don’t let mistakes fall through the cracks. In just the last three years, FIFA has implemented the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), an assistant referee who reviews decisions made by the head referee through video footage.

While video technology is not intended to replace referees, it was adopted to help ensure that potential mistakes are avoided. World Cup referees have reached the highest level of refereeing in their respective countries before they join the World Cup field, but they are humans who make human mistakes. However, in a sport where the score of a winning match may come from just one goal, one wrong call can completely change the trajectory of a game or tournament. The adoption of this “referee decision support” helps these officials ensure games run smoothly and as fairly as possible. 

In medicine, doctors go through years of training to become experts in their field, but like referees, they are human. It is impossible for any doctor to memorize every possible diagnosis in the realm of medicine—and stay constantly up to date with new research. Clinical decision support tools can aid physicians in diagnosing rare or unusual conditions to prevent the chance of a misdiagnosis. These tools improve clinical processes, and more advanced artificial intelligence (AI) technologies have demonstrated success in improved diagnostic accuracy. The adoption of these tools was a natural evolution in the convergence of technology and medicine, limiting diagnostic errors and providing holistic support for busy physicians.

Whether it be a grueling loss, error in judgment or a gender fight for equality, World Cup athletes and the U.S. healthcare system are always pushing for excellence—and keeping their eyes on the prize. In healthcare, the ultimate goal is to deliver the best quality care and improve patient outcomes. Those working in healthcare should take a closer look during the next game—they may find inspiration from the field that can be applied far beyond the World Cup.

Peter Alperin, M.D., is vice president at Doximity, the online network of healthcare professionals.  He is an internal medicine physician in San Francisco and has spent the past 20 years in the world of healthcare IT.

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