Do Professional Athletes Always Get the “Best Care”?

Do professional athletes always get the “best care”, they are the “best athletes” so they should right? Well, that might depend on how someone defines “best care”. Many of the therapists that read this blog on a regular basis might question the “best” portion behind some of the “care” delivered to our athletes that so many in our culture hold to such a high degree. This was on full display at the Olympics last year with all the cupping hickey marks left on the athletes.

Unfortunately, many people in our culture believe in a false assumption that the best athletes always get the best healthcare. Which lately seems to be coming into question (see Tiger Woods and Steve Kerr). Do not get me wrong, there are some great therapists delivering excellent care for professional athletes. However, just because someone works with a professional athlete does not mean they are a great therapist and thus delivering the best care. Yet look at how often we hear individuals that work with professional athletes quickly tout this point when they are speaking publicly or on social media (i.e. “Well, in my work with getting professional athletes back into competition…”). Why don’t we hear therapists boast about their work with what our culture would call the more common individual, “Well, in my work with getting the factory worker back to work…”. Interestingly we probably hear the opposite, “Well I just work with factory workers, so I don’t have the expertise of those that work with professional athletes.” Whether it is intentional or not, it may be a bit of an “appeal to authority” regarding their expert opinion when someone name drops that they work with professional athletes. I wish we could all understand that just because someone works with professional athletes that alone does not make them an expert. I would not disagree that getting a high-level athlete back to performing at a high level can require some expertise, but does it require more expertise then getting the factory worker back to work? In some ways, it could be argued that getting the factory worker back to work is, dare I say, more challenging and requires an even higher level of expertise in some areas.

Unfortunately, our culture puts our sporting heroes on a high pedestal and many dream of being like them or providing care for them. Enough so that there was a commercial accompanied by a song bold enough to flat out say “Be like Mike”. When it comes to being like them not only do people want to dress and use the same equipment as them, but they want to get the same health care as them. It must have been the cupping that made Michael Phelps win a few more gold medals, not the fact that he is just a more genetically gifted and harder working individual than others. Doesn’t this speak to so many of our cultural woes? We want a quick and easy magical fix, not the reality of hard work and realistic expectations.

The truth is, sadly, it is not just the patients that fall victim to this, many therapists have a belief that there must be a magical quick and easy treatment technique to fix all their patients. The thought of “pro athletes are getting it so it must be great”, can easily slip into a therapist’s thinking. In addition, maybe it is when someone reads the testimony about a treatment that got someone better when all other regular treatments failed. This surely must be the magic treatment that needs to be in the toolbox to deliver the best care. Many therapists tend to avoid the more realistic expectation that some patients may not get 100% better, definitely not in one or two treatments, and it will take the hard work of the knowledge of the evidence and motivation of the patient through the hard work of therapy to get a good outcome over a realistic time-period.

I often wonder if pro athletes only got evidence-based care wrapped up with realistic expectations that focused on hard work, if we could redefine what “best care” really might be. Because there are some factory workers out there getting this level of care from their therapist and not realizing they get better care then some professional athletes do.

6 responses to “Do Professional Athletes Always Get the “Best Care”?

  1. michael says:

    Great thoughts Kory. I often hear this from patients about how athletes get better care because of their worth and they can buy the best care. I also recently heard or read something, after Tigers most recent back surgery, about his procedure etc. And the surgeon, was using such threatening and harmful words to describe Tigers prognosis…something to the tune of …”most people come back from these surgeries but with the history that Tiger has had with his back…..” Made me really think about what role does education have with these high level athletes? Seems that most all treatments (at least seen in the media) with these athletes are stuck using biomedical model, “if it’s broke we will fix it”. Makes me want to call Tiger and offer my services to work from the top down. Bottom up has had little impact on his return…

  2. Kory Zimney says:

    Michael, isn’t that the false perception people have that more expensive care always means better care. Professional athletes probably get more expensive care because they can afford it, but that does not always equate to better care.

  3. Terry Cox says:

    Good post Kory. This also goes along well with our conversation over the past weekend at the ISPI annual conference about physical therapists who are not doing research or in academics describing themselves as “just a therapist”. A pet peeve of yours and mine.

  4. Rick Joreitz says:

    This is a good post. I work with pro athletes in the mornings but see “regular people” in the afternoons. Getting both groups to return to their level of function is very gratifying.
    In many instances, the rehab is very similar. However a patient may only get PT 2x/week where a player gets it 6-7x/week. And the subtleties that often go ignored in patients tend to be major contributing factors for pro athletes.
    I don’t think the PTs and ATCs in professional sports are always the best. I’m still on social media following rehab professionals trying to learn just like everyone else. And my coworkers in the clinic and at Pitt continue to prove to be an asset that I consistently benefit from.

  5. Michael says:

    Interesting thoughts on a subject I have grappled with for some time. I certainly agree that some patients have a tendency to view the treatments provided to athletes as “state of the art”, and they probably can’t be faulted for holding this view. I believe that the problem is much more pervasive than patient perception. Physicians , and yes even we PT’s, are not immune to this view.
    Unfortunately , very few (especially outside our profession) are able to adequately judge the quality of care provided. Oftentimes it seems that the more exotic the treatment, the higher the esteem is granted to those “innovators”. The evidenced based standard of care is , to some, much less interesting. Although I realize great strides have been made , we really need to do more to advance benchmarking in the profession. This should include validated outcome measures , patient satisfaction, as well as cost effectiveness measures.
    It has been said that rating your doctor (or therapist) is really nothing like rating a meal at the local restaurant. Everyone knows if the person treating them is nice, friendly, etc, but judging the content of the care provided and more importantly the decision making that lead to that care is an entirely different matter.
    Patients, physicians, and sometimes we ,too, consider those who provide the most treatment (number of procedures and modalities, as well as, the longest care) and most unusual treatment as being the best.

    1. Kory Zimney says:

      Michael, you make a great point that we need to have better established benchmarks. The information is out there to some degree but is not usually shared with patients. Better transparency on outcomes would be a way to push the quality button further.

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