Dec. 22, 2006 — -- Patrick Dempsey won't be your surgeon when you wheel into the operating room, but the man in scrubs who greets you might be pretty sexy himself, according to new research.
Male surgeons are taller and more handsome than male physicians, according to a study in this week's (traditionally lighthearted) Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal.
Doctors at the University of Barcelona Hospital in Spain noticed that the tallest and most handsome male medical students were more likely to become surgeons, and that the shortest (and perhaps not so good looking) ones were more likely to become physicians.
After years of observation, they decided to test their hypothesis.
"We hypothesize that, on average, surgeons are taller and better looking than physicians," said the study authors in their report.
Researchers selected a random sample of 12 surgeons and 12 physicians -- and senior staff, and all male -- from the hospital, recorded their height, and compared digital pictures of those real doctors against pictures of four well-known stars who play doctors in movies or on TV.
The stars were Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble (a neurosurgeon in the film "The Fugitive"), George Clooney as Dr. Doug Ross (a pediatrician in the television series "ER"), Patrick Dempsey as Dr. Derek Shepherd (a surgeon in the television series "Grey's Anatomy"), and Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House (a nephrologist and infectious disease specialist in the television series "House").
All pictures were randomly shuffled and shown to eight willing females -- three doctors and five nurses from the same Barcelona hospital, all in the same age bracket as the men pictured.
The women used the ever-so-scientific "good-looking score" on a scale of 1 to 7 to rate each photo.
Score of 1 = ugly. Score of 7 = hot.
The survey found that, on average, senior male surgeons were taller and better looking than senior male physicians.
The results also showed that actors who played doctors on the big or little screen were significantly better looking than real surgeons and physicians.
"As a surgeon, I concur with the authors' conclusions. We are taller and better looking than internists," said Dr. Mark Soberman, vice chairman of the department of surgery at Washington Hospital Center at Washington.
Widespread rumors, discussions, polls and illegal bets arose throughout the hospital after the results had been tallied, the study authors said.
The researchers didn't disclose which hospital doctor scored closest to George Clooney. If they asked, the study volunteers were privately told about their personal good-looking score compared with the average score of their colleagues.
The study's conclusion could be questionable.
"As a tall, good-looking [according to my wife, mother and daughter] pediatric subspecialist [not surgeon], I question the reliability and reproducibility of the study," said Dr. Miles Weinberger of the Children's Hospital of Iowa in Iowa City.
And the findings don't even begin to address the good-looking attributes of other medical specialties.
"Of more interest to me, as someone who is married to a dermatologist, [is the] preponderance of hot babes among dermatologists -- including my wife, of course," Weinberger said.
"The men in that field are generally short and anemic looking," he said.
Of course, there isn't any data to support Weinberger's observations -- and dermatologists don't necessarily agree with his hypothesis.
"I may be short, but I am certainly not anemic. I am proud to say I have been working hard to keep my hemoglobin above 12.5," said Dr. Mark Abdelmalek, a dermatologic and surgery fellow at the laser and dermatologic surgery center in St. Louis.
While the study might seem valid at first glance, a lot of issues were not addressed.
"There are a couple omissions from the study, which I have not studied but suspect from anecdotal evidence to be true," said Dr. Sid Gilman, director of the Michigan Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in the department of neurology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
"Neurologists tend to be more handsome than other physician specialists. Needless to say, I am a neurologist," he said.
There might be some truth to Gilman's piece of anecdotal evidence.
"Neurologists and psychiatrists are generally known to be tall, handsome, smart and funny people, and know best how to properly use the good-looking score to their own advantage," said Dr. Lon Schneider, professor of psychiatry, neurology and gerontology at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles.
Fun as the findings might be to gossip over, the study isn't exactly conclusive.
It's a small study, possibly biased and definitely subjective. One must be careful not to draw sweeping conclusions from a lighthearted but potentially problematic story. It's nothing to take too seriously.
"I would think that physicians are no different than other professions: We don't like certain stereotypes perpetuated, and we don't like to be portrayed inaccurately," said Dr. John Coppes of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Austin Medical Center in Austin, Minn.
Is there any truth behind the finding?
Whether the report is true or not, some doctors agree with it.
"I have to agree that surgeons are better looking and usually taller than us medical types -- no offense to my colleagues," said Dr. Lori Mosca, director of preventive cardiology at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York.
Mosca disclosed a conflict of interest: She is married to a surgeon.
The authors suggest several plausible explanations for the findings. For example, surgeons spend a lot of time in operating rooms, which are cleaner, cooler, and have a higher oxygen content than the average medical ward, where physicians spend most of their time.
They also often wear clog-type shoes that add two or three centimeters to their perceived height.
"Surgeons, and actors, are well known to wear elevators in their shoes so they don't have to keep looking up at the patient or camera [which is always unflattering]," Schneider said.
Those extra centimeters could make all the difference.
"From social psychology experiments we know that taller individuals -- particularly men -- earn more, are more popular, and have enhanced communication and other positive attributes as a result of their stature," said Dr. Cliff Bassett, an allergist at the Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Physicians, in contrast, tend to hang heavy stethoscopes around their necks, which bows their heads forward and reduces their perceived height.
Celebrities tend to be photogenic by the nature of their profession, frankly, but the silver screen doesn't always trump what is right in front of you.
"I disagree that celebs are even better. There is nothing more attractive than a real doctor or surgeon," Mosca said.
Indeed, some real doctors are good looking. Some might drift toward television and film work, being fit for the screen themselves.
"The really good-looking doctors get the jobs on the networks as medical correspondents," Coppes said.
Further studies are needed to assess whether these findings also apply to females, and authors still can't say whether the differences are genetic or environmental.
But, personal communications suggest that most surgeons and physicians are pleased with their career choices -- and their looks.