As professional sports came to a grinding halt in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many wondered just how each sport could and would safely return, and when. We’re now many months into this “unprecedented time” in our nation’s history — with an enigmatic virus that appears to be here to stay. But professional sports are returning — including soccer, basketball, hockey, baseball and football — just without the lively and energetic, packed stadiums and arenas we’re so accustomed to seeing.
Like it or not, the temporary pause on sold-out arenas and stadiums is a necessary public health measure during a pandemic. But what about the measures put in place for professional athletes and team staff members? How is their health being prioritized and protected?
In many cases, the safeguarding of teams is taking place in remarkable and never-before-seen ways. You’ve likely heard of the “bubble” approach — essentially sequestering teams and essential staff members in one location while they train and play, and testing them regularly to not invite in or spread illness. It takes an incredible amount of discipline, consideration and effort to make that happen, and it primarily has to do with the team physician. As it turns out, and in every type of professional sport, the team physician plays a critical role — not only as a physician, but as a leader, scientist and educator to all of a team’s stakeholders.
The Team Physician as Leader
Especially during a pandemic — but always, really — the team physician is the chief medical officer for his or her team in association with the league. This doctor serves as the data-directed interface with COVID-19 data centers, including but not limited to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionand Johns Hopkins University. He or she is the point person who stays abreast of virus data trends and helps the team pivot plans or adjust protocols using data to drive those decisions.
Additional leadership roles include collaboration with all stakeholders, such as the players and the team’s owner(s), coaches and players associations. It is essential to keep all parties informed as team decisions come from the top, and in collaboration with the league’s protocols and procedures.
But perhaps most importantly, the team physician, as a health leader, has the responsibility to develop trusting and inspirational relationships at all levels of the organization, which means he or she must behave with authenticity, self-regulation and responsiveness. The team’s trust in its physicians is paramount.
The Team Physician as Scientist
As one can imagine with a novel virus, misinformation can abound, and it can spread quickly. One might argue that we’re living inside a science experiment when it comes to COVID-19. Discoveries about how it affects humans are seemingly being made on a daily basis. So the team physician’s role as a scientist is necessary to help teams interpret the data being published about the virus and translate it into meaningful health policies and procedures to keep teams healthy and safe. Since many organizations are taking the “bubble” or the “virtual bubble” approach to keeping players and involved stakeholders safe, the team physician may also conduct research that evaluates how such measures are working and whether they apply to broader use in other areas, beyond sport.
The Team Physician as Educator
As a teacher, the team physician is responsible for his or her patients (the players) — responding to their fears and concerns, and caring for and addressing their medical needs. His or her role is also necessary as a peer educator through webinars and continuing medical education opportunities. The broader physician community can benefit from insights only available to a select few doctors around the world. This physician education necessity has a lot to do with the other physicians who consult for amateur, community and youth athletic clubs. What we do in the professional athletic “arena” in terms of our approach to halting the spread of COVID-19 and keeping athletes, trainers, coaches and others safe is what will be looked upon as a “gold standard” by a multitude of other sports organization types and levels.
The Team Physician as Physician and Surgeon
The team doctor should expertly perform the duties of his or her job. But I saved this part for last because it translates beyond the professional sports “bubble.” The safety measures a doctor espouses with their professional athlete populations should translate to clinical practice and surgical center environments. This means that policies and procedures and best practices for screening, cleaning and personal protective equipment utilization should be no less stringent when caring for our non-professional athlete patients and staff members.
The most important lessons we’ve learned from our sports is that the “bubble” is a safe and effective environment for allowing our beloved sports to continue. It takes discipline, focus and consistent approaches to achieve public health mitigation.
Yes, our responsibility as physicians is novel and significant during this time, but we were trained for it and are honored to be tasked with this enormous challenge. Perhaps at no other time in history has our Hippocratic Oath that “the patient always comes first” been more important to the way we practice medicine and care for our patients, bubble or not.
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