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Nature versus Nuture: Elite Sports Athletes and Physician Training

Michael Jordan.  Pele.  Sandy Koufax.  William Henderson.  How do the greatest athletes in the world become so great?  Do they have an innate ability or are they simply hard workers?  Certainly, it is a combination of both.  Nevertheless Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University, claims that talent is over-rated; hard work is the key to greatness.  In their New York Times article (“A Star is Born“), economists Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt summarize Ericsson’s findings and extrapolate them to the medical field.

And it would probably pay to rethink a great deal of medical training. Ericsson has noted that most doctors actually perform worse the longer they are out of medical school. Surgeons, however, are an exception. That’s because they are constantly exposed to two key elements of deliberate practice: immediate feedback and specific goal-setting.

The same is not true for, say, a mammographer. When a doctor reads a mammogram, she doesn’t know for certain if there is breast cancer or not. She will be able to know only weeks later, from a biopsy, or years later, when no cancer develops. Without meaningful feedback, a doctor’s ability actually deteriorates over time. Ericsson suggests a new mode of training. “Imagine a situation where a doctor could diagnose mammograms from old cases and immediately get feedback of the correct diagnosis for each case,” he says. “Working in such a learning environment, a doctor might see more different cancers in one day than in a couple of years of normal practice.”