I have always believed in these three basic fundamentals for the sports physician:
The sports medicine physician needs to:
1. Know what you know
2. Know what you don’t know
3. Know how to get the answers for things that you don’t know
Just like athletes are “specialists” (e.g., a sprinter, a freestyler, etc.), physicians also have their area of expertise. No one physician can specialize in all areas. This is relevant to sports medicine and care of athletes, because the ideal sports medicine team is just that– a “team” of individuals with varying areas of expertise. For example, I am an orthopedic surgeon, but as team physician I must manage all sorts of injuries and illnesses. Taking care of these athletes over time provides good experience in managing the issues that are specific to a given sport and/or type of athlete. One learns the patterns of injuries that occur in a specific sport and how to best manage these injuries. At the same time, it is important for the sports physician to know when to ask for help.
Often times we need to consult specialists, such as a cardiologist when managing a heart condition or an endocrinologist if one of our athletes has diabetes. An important part of the sports physician’s job is to be able to communicate effectively with the athlete, coach, the athlete’s manager and family, and sometimes other outside individuals such as agents. We must carefully navigate issues related to privacy and confidentiality. Our job is to be able to serve as the “link” between the athlete, coach, and the specialist. The sports physician needs to be able to communicate effectively with the medical specialist on one hand and then with the athlete and coach on the other hand. Understanding the particular demands of the sports allows the sports physician to help the athlete interpret the information given by the specialist. This is critical, because although the specialist is an expert in his or her area, he or she may not understand the demands of the sport, training, and mentality of the athlete. All of these things are important in optimizing care of the athlete, and the sports physician fulfills an important role by acting as this “interpreter.” In this way we also work closely with athletic trainers, physical therapists, and massage therapists, where our role is to communicate the medical information to the physiotherapist to design the optimal rehabilitation program.
Dr. Scott Rodeo is an orthopedic surgeon and the co-chief of the Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service at Hospital for Special Surgery. He serves as a Team Physician for U.S.A. Olympic Swimming.