Medical associations based on a shared sport or hobby rather than a medical specialty provide a networking experience based on fun-- and may also promote greater understanding across disciplines.

Nobody ever accused doctors of being stiffs. Accountants, maybe, but not doctors--they know that being active and having fun is good for you! In fact, enough of them feel that way that they've formed associations to cater to both their professional development and the advancement of their healthful hobbies. Meetings of these associations are structured to enable attendees to earn education credits and, say, log a few in-flight hours or improve their serve.

Another benefit of these avocational affiliations is that they strengthen members' professional relationships. And some groups even find ways to combine their hobbies and their professions to do good deeds, for example, flying at their own expense to a location where medical care is desperately needed.

Herewith, a look at fun-loving docs on the job and off--concentrating in classrooms, networking in hot tubs, flying, running, and ministering to those in need.

"We need at least 10 to 12 courts to do our meetings," says Al Evans, PhD, executive director of AMTA. A resort that has plenty of courts, but local members who don't want to be displaced, simply won't do. "The resort has to be willing to give us the courts." Currently on the schedule: Palmetto Dunes Resort in Hilton Head, SC, and Gardiner's on Camelback in Scottsdale, AZ.

That's not to suggest that AMTA's four to six meetings per year are totally tennis. Category 1 CME credits are offered by the educational programs, which are always titled "Omni-Specialty Medical Update." Evans explains that physicians attend sessions on cutting-edge topics at the national meetings for their own specialties. But AMTA offers "a broad review of a broad range of topics. Members like it. They say it's like being back in medical school."

In fact, Evans points out, narrower topics would probably hurt attendance. "Everything we do shuts some doors. We set a location or a time and it shuts some doors." That is, some members won't be able to attend. "Then we choose a tennis surface--some want hard surface, and some want soft." Those who don't like the choice won't attend the meeting. Add to those limitations courses that are too narrow to interest some members, and potential attendance shrinks even more.

AMTA had its beginning in 1967 when opthalmologist Bill McGannon submitted an article about tennis to a sports and leisure magazine for physicians. Overwhelming reader response led McGannon and the magazine's editor, Bill Drake, to solicit members for a proposed medical tennis association. Within 60 days there were more than 300 applications and, according to the association's history, "AMTA was off and volleying." Drake subsequently left the magazine to become executive director of AMTA, which today has 1,000 dues-paying members and a mailing list of 2,500. In 1971, AMTA helped launch the World Medical Tennis Society, which now has members in more than 50 countries.

Besides the opportunity to play tennis at AMTA meetings, members stay in touch and play tennis together as they travel about the country to attend other meetings. That's not all. "Many professional consultations, referrals, and even new job situations have come about through AMTA," says Evans. Because members can combine CME study with low-cost "dream tennis vacations" at top resorts and also form firm friendships, one member analogized that "AMTA meetings have the low cost/high benefit ratio of aspirin."

AMAA takes its meetings to its members. Rather than holding an annual meeting, it has five or six CME meetings per year in conjunction with marathons. "Because most of our members are doctors who run marathons, it's most convenient to catch them at the marathons," says Barbara Baldwin, MPH, the association's information services director and organizer of two meetings per year.

Meetings naturally precede the marathons. "We try to arrange it so that on the day immediately before the marathon, people aren't sitting all day long," says Baldwin. "And at the breaks, we have lots of carbohydrates like bagels and sports drinks, plus plenty of water." Education extends beyond the classroom. At the annual Marine Corps Marathon, held for the last two years at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD, attendees had the opportunity to work the medical tents during the race. "They earned CME credits for that--it's considered practical education," says Baldwin. Or, as association executive director Susan Kalish quips, "They have the opportunity to treat the injured as well as be the injured."

The members contribute in other ways as well. Every doctor who registers for the Boston Marathon is asked to make a donation to the nearby Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Also, many of the members have agreed to undergo blood tests to assist a Boston researcher who is studying how enzymes in the heart are affected by marathon running. "Our doctors are good guinea pigs," says Kalish.

AMAA's 3,500 members include both medical professionals and nonmedical people in the health professions, including educators. "At our meetings, an orthopedist sits next to a podiatrist who sits next to a family practice physician and a psychiatrist," says Kalish. "They all take a different approach, they all bring something to the discussion, and it's a team-building atmosphere. Some physicians have a strong bias against others," she observes, "but they learn from each other here.

"We'll see more of this with HMOs," she continues. "Not just one doctor will diagnose a case. A psychologist will deal with a bummed-out athlete, a dermatologist will deal with chafing issues, or an eye doctor will discuss how eye surgery will affect someone hitting a baseball."

AMAA was born out of a tragedy. "When I was 41, my partner died of a coronary attack," says Ronald M. Lawrence, MD, PhD. It was 1967 and, says Lawrence, "Exercising was still a revolutionary concept. But I started jogging and got turned on by the changes in myself." Inspired, Lawrence founded American Joggers Association General (AJOG), which was open to both professionals and the general public.

Unbeknownst to him, however, Richard Bohannon, MD, a retired Air Force Surgeon General, had started the National Jogging Association (NJA) at about the same time. Eventually the two met, realized they were competing, and amicably divided up the turf. AJOG became American Medical Joggers Association, and Bohannon continued his organization for lay people. About two years ago, the professional division of NJA's successor organization, the American Running and Fitness Association, merged with Lawrence's organization, now the AMAA.

"More than 25,000 doctors have belonged to the association over the years," says Lawrence. "It's impressive--and it isn't. You'd think more people would belong. But even now, less than 10 percent of physicians do any aerobic exercise. Some of them consider golf an exercise, but it isn't. Even tennis isn't necessarily fully aerobic."

AMAA's influence is widespread. "We were the impetus for pharmaceutical companies to sponsor runs at meetings," says Lawrence. "We started the Honolulu Marathon and brought medical support to the Boston Marathon. We're a major force in the marathon movement."

The Flying Physicians Association, Inc. (FPA) Throughout the year, FPA continually recruits some of its 1,000 worldwide members to volunteer at an understaffed clinic in Falmouth (Trelawny Region), Jamaica. "Our doctors fly their own aircraft, pay for their own housing, and take care of these people every day," says executive vice president Patricia Nodecker. Through the efforts of FPA, The Rotary Club and International Aid contribute money, supplies, and equipment to the clinic.

With all the needy areas in the world, how did FPA choose Jamaica? "Some countries have so much red tape that it's almost futile to try," Nodecker replies. "We did research for our project and found that it's easy to get through customs in Jamaica. We can get a doctor scheduled there in about a month."

The Trelawny Outreach Project, begun in 1992 by an FPA member, meets one of FPA's stated objectives--"better utilization of aircraft for emergency services." Its other objectives include "to increase safety and to preserve health...through example and teaching to the medical profession, to air crews and to the public at large." Targeting those objectives, FPA not only holds annual and regional meetings of its own, but also meets jointly with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), a nonmedical group.

Because FPA's members have their own aircraft, the group meets at resorts near airports. Resorts with their own airstrips--for example, the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, FL, or Sunriver Resort, in Sunriver, OR--are especially desirable. Both CME sessions and lectures on aviation safety are scheduled.

At AOPA meetings, "We offer our physicians as speakers on medical topics for the general public," says Nodecker. "AOPA members are all pilots, but they are in many professions. This is our way of reaching out to the public with physicians' knowledge."

On the day the physicians fly out of the various meetings, "they're all up early doing their flight plans together," says Nodecker. "There is such bonding. These people are friends for life because their enthusiasm for both medicine and flying is so strong."

U.S. Dental Tennis Association (USDTA) Established nearly 30 years ago as an informal study club for dentists who play tennis, USDTA today has 329 members and holds two full-fledged meetings per year that include both accredited continuing education and tennis tournaments. But the two are carefully separated. "We have a rule that dentists are not allowed on tennis courts in the morning, when the classes are held," says executive secretary Carolinn Gaffner. Courts are reserved for spouses in the morning, the dentists play in the early afternoon, and there are mixed doubles in the late afternoon. USDTA meets on the West Coast in the fall and the East Coast in the spring, usually at one of the country's top 50 tennis resorts. Last April, for example, it was The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort in Longboat Key, FL.

The venues sometimes offer unsualy networking opportunities. "If the property has the facilities, we have a hot tub party after dinner," says Gaffner. And there the ideas continue to flow. "They learn a lot from the seminars and from each other. They relate to each other on a professional level and develop very strong friendships through the association."

Work That Looks Like Play Sometimes what looks like play really is work. Case in point: the Undersea and Hyberbaric Medical Society (UHMS). Its members are practitioners of diving medicine, rather than people interested in recreational diving, says director of meetings Jane Dunne. Although most of the members are divers, that's not why they joined the society, she emphasizes. And unlike some groups that aim to combine sport with study, these "diving docs" don't necessarily seek a meeting venue with diving opportunities. Last year they met in Anchorage, Alaska. This year, however, they were at the Marriot CasaMagna in Cancun.

UHMS is an offshoot of the Aerospace Medicine Association. A group of physicians focused on research in hyperbaric (high pressure) medicine formed the newer organization 30 years ago because they felt their needs weren't being met by the aerospace group, which studied low-pressure issues.

The 2,300 UHMS members worldwide include physicians, PhDs, nurses, and technicians. "People join for the education," says Dunne. "Hospitals with hyperbaric facilities usually prefer that their staff belong to the society."

Besides holding its own annual meeting plus periodic workshops on a topic like treatment of near-drowning, the society presents a two-week course to train physicians in diving medicine.

The society also helped by launching an organization for sport divers, Divers Alert Network, some 20 years ago. That group is now run by Duke University and has more than 100,000 members.