8 Points to Consider Before Becoming a Team Physician for Professional Athletes

Laura Dyrda -  
The team physician is a position that requires a lot of time, energy and finances spent away from your regular practice. It can also be a highly rewarding experience, if the physician goes in with the right mindset. Here are eight things orthopedic and sports medicine physicians should consider before taking on the responsibilities of a team physician for professional athletes.

1. Motivation can't be driven by finances.
Most financial gain for team physicians comes from marketing efforts, not direct compensation. Therefore, you will be dissatisfied if your primary motivation for becoming a team physician is financial rewards. "The economics of being a team physician don't match the time and effort we put into it," says Arthur Valadie, MD, an orthopedic surgeon with Coastal Orthopedics in Bradenton, and team consultant to the Pittsburgh Pirates and the US Soccer Team. "Certainly, we do it because we like taking care of the athletes."

Essentially, you should become a team physician because you enjoy taking care of high-level athletes and love the sport. "If you are giving up time and financial opportunity to become a team physician, you must get some benefit out of it," says Karl Kaluza, DO, a sports medicine physician with Sports Medicine at Legacy Medical—Lake Oswego, Ore., and team physician for the Portland Timbers professional soccer team. "If you aren't enjoying the sport and you aren't passionate about it, I would skip the responsibility."

2. Understand the commitment. Becoming a team physician for professional athletes is a huge time commitment, for which you aren't directly compensated. The team physician must conduct preseason evaluations and make themselves available during practices and games, even traveling with the team post-season. "You have to like the sport or performances you cover and the medicine involved because you're spending all thies time away from your regular practice," says Craig Westin, MD, orthopedic surgeon at the Chicago Center for Orthopedics at Weiss Memorial Hospital and medical director of Chicago's Joffrey Ballet. "Good colleagues are essential. It takes a team to take care of a team."

Settle time commitments upfront and carefully consider whether you are in a position, both professionally and personally, to become a team physician, says David Wallis, MD, with South Bay Family Medical Group in Torrance, Calif., and team physician for the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA professional soccer teams. Also address the insurance and payment methods ahead of time so you can focus on medicine instead of the logistics going forward. You are responsible for receiving drug test results and arranging care for the athletes with a positive drug test. Know whether you are storing or distributing medications at the practice site or a game day facility, says Robert Dimeff, MD, director of sports medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, you must obtain proper pharmacy licenses and keep meticulous records

"You can really over commit yourself if you're not careful," says Jon Divine, MD, an associate professor in the department of orthopedic surgery at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and head team physician for the UC Bearcats. Dr. Divine is also an orthopedic sports medicine physician with University Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine and the team physician for the Cincinnati Commandos, a professional indoor arena football team.

3. Know how you will grade athletes during physicals.
Part of the team physician's job is to conduct physicals for the athletes and evaluate potential draftees. The team owners will be curious about the future potential for these athletes. "You examine the players and you might say 'Listen, I think this player may only be able to play three to four years'," says Dr. Dimeff. "Others might have a long career, depending on what the sport is." The teams have different goals in acquiring players, and a long or short career with the team might be beneficial depending on the situation.

4. Be prepared to help the players get a second opinion. A lot rides on the treatment professional athletes undergo after an injury and many times they will want a second opinion. "You have to put your ego aside and help the athlete get the second opinion," says Dr. Dimeff. "I have traveled with players across the country to make sure that they get the best information to help in their overall care." The uncertainty among professional athletes is more prevalent because the stakes are higher. "There's a level of skepticism you have to be willing to handle," says Dr. Lamar. "There's a level of visibility even to the smaller decisions you make that doesn't apply to people out of the public eye."

5. Have a good relationship with other professionals. One physician can't be the lone team physician for professional athletes anymore. They need to have a team of several subspecialists available to address any injury the athletes might come across. You also need to work well with the physical therapists and athletic trainers who are working with the team. This is one of the benefits of becoming a team physician. "A lot of people who work with professional athletes are at the top of their game," says Dr. Wallis. "They are very passionate about sports and the medical practice. I often find those people combine a drive for excellence with a passion that's good to work with."

These people can also serve as back-ups for you if you aren't available during an emergency or must skip a game due to prior commitments.

6. Fame isn't part of the equation. Though the athletes are famous for their abilities, you won't become famous for your role as their physician, so don't buy into the media's allure. Team physicians often aren't able to speak with the press because of HIPAA confidentiality regulations. Rather, the team physician might be mentioned in a team news release about the player's well-being. Additionally, just because you are the team physician doesn't mean you'll be operating on a star player.

"If you go into it thinking you want to operate on athletes and everyone will recognize you, you'll be disappointed," says Joseph Burkhardt, DO, an orthopedic surgeon and partner at Brookside Surgery Center in Battle Creek, Mich., and team physician for the Battle Creek Revolution professional junior hockey team. "It's more about being part of the team and team environment. Most high caliber athletes get shipped off to a few places around the country for their surgery."

7. Don't get star struck.
Team physicians need to see professional athletes as their patients instead of a celebrity who tore their ACL while running for the game-winning touchdown. "Your job as their physician is to do what ever is best for the patient," says Robert Watkins, Jr., MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon and co-director of Marina Spine Center at Marina Del Rey (Calif.) Hospital, and spinal consultant for the Los Angeles Dodgers and other Los Angeles teams. "You're not famous or part of the celebrity that surrounds the athlete. You're a physician and your job is to provide a service for your patient. They are still a person with an injury and your job is to help them out, just like anybody else." If you don't think you can treat a professional athlete without the same confidence and discretion as you do for any other patient, perhaps being a team physician isn't for you.

8. The impact on your reputation isn't always positive. Initially, the prestige of becoming the team physician for a professional team can gain you credibility and drive a higher patient volume, but the intense scrutiny on these athletes also means that a bad outcome could reflect on your reputation negatively. "If a player does badly and everyone knows you are the team physician, there could potentially be a lot of negative publicity," says David Geier, MD, director of MUSC Sports Medicine and team physician for the Charleston Battery professional soccer team.

Read other coverage on sports medicine with professional athletes:

- 8 Best Practices for Treating High-Level Athletes


- 8 Biggest Challenges Facing Team Physicians for Professional Athletes

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