Can a game of soccer save lives?

Health researchers from The George Institute for Global Health and the University of Alberta compare soccer to healthcare to see which scores more when it comes to introducing interventions, in a paper published today in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal. The verdict – there's a lot to be learned from a soccer game.

Though the analogy is intentionally absurd lessons from soccer are real and can help save lives said Dr Julie Redfern of The George Institute and The University of Sydney.

"Taking an aspirin, for example, is a relatively simple health intervention to put into practice compared to changing a person's lifestyle," Dr Redfern said.

"Being able to easily translate into practice complex health interventions is crucial so we can respond effectively to the rising rates globally of chronic diseases like heart disease, stroke and diabetes, and the associated risks like high blood pressure and obesity," she said.

"Healthcare research can learn from football by describing the important components of interventions and the potential outcomes for clinical practice more comprehensively.

"There is a lot of robust research to build upon for support programs for chronic disease, but on a whole it needs better understood so it can be easily translated into health policy and implemented by government.

"From a health perspective, current research approaches being used to look at complex interventions would not be able to pick up the difference between health researcher Dr Alex Clark from The University of Alberta and Lionel Messi, FC Barcelona's all-time scorer.

"Most health research would see Lionel Messi and Dr Clark as very similar based on their gender, height, hair colour and job performance in their respective fields, even though Dr Clark doesn't have the skills to woo stadiums of crazed soccer fans like Lionel Messi, a desired outcome of the game."

According to lead author Dr Alex Clark from the University of Alberta, whereas health research focuses on what is readily quantifiable, soccer fans and announcers appreciate the complexities that make Lionel Messi the player he is, and a host of other intangibles during a match—from field conditions to injuries to opponents to coaching and managing.

"Our health research needs to tap into these 'Messi intangibles' when we are evaluating treatments and interventions," Dr Clark said.

"A simplistic trial is not going to do that, which is why you end up with some studies that say a program is successful and some studies that don't. And decades of research is published like this, with contrary findings and no understanding as to why," he said.

"What we should be asking is what works for whom, when and why." Researchers also need to learn from failure says Dr Clark.

"When Lionel Messi has a bad day on the pitch, fans and announcers are keen to ask why. In health-care research, negative findings either don't get published or are 'spun' into positive findings.

"That raises deep questions about our scientific culture. We need to embrace those hard questions and reflections to learn from failure and create research that is of higher quality, is more useful and is more likely to benefit people in Australia and elsewhere in the world."