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A Winning Game Plan: Tackling Sports Injuries With the Help of EHRs

October 25, 2013
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We often might look at professional athletes as immune to needing healthcare like the rest of us. But the reality is that no one is exempt to injury, especially athletes who subject themselves to damage that can be severe and long-lasting. As a result, technological advances in health IT have been—and will continue to be—needed in high-contact sports.

We’re starting to see some of this: late last year, both the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Football League (NFL) announced that they were using electronic health records (EHRs) to replace paper medical records for all players.

The NBA is using the Kansas City, Mo.-based Cerner’s cloud-based HealtheAthlete platform, while the NFL tapped the Westborough, Mass.-based eClinicalWorks for its EHR. As part of a 10-year, $10 million contract, NFL physicians will have cloud-based access to a wealth of medical data, including X-rays, blood tests, medications, and even video clips depicting injuries sustained during games.  The data will help doctors spot trends in common problems resulting from the high-contact sport, including the lasting effects of head trauma, which has become a major concern in the sport.

In fact, based on a research study by Jesse David, M.D., of Edgeworth Economics on data from the NFL Players Association, there were 265 concussions in the 2012 season (from training camp through the Super Bowl) after 266 in 2011. Is one fewer concussion progress? The total was 270 in 2010.

Head injuries have become a very tricky and sensitive issue of late in the NFL. The Sporting News conducted a poll late last year revealing that 56 percent of professional football players surveyed said they would hide concussion symptoms during a game to stay on the field of play. But such is the nature of today’s sports; athletes want to stay in the game to give their team the best chance to win in addition to boosting their own individual performance—I actually believe that many athletes think they are above the pitfalls that come with injury.

Playing in the NFL is more dangerous than most people imagine, though— former Dallas Cowboy star running back Emmitt Smith once compared it to being in 20 car crashes every Sunday.

As such, the NFL wanted to be able to deliver information about injured players to doctors as fast as possible, no matter where they might be for a particular game. Before the implementation of EHRs, each team had its own medical records maintained separately, which can cause delays in crisis situations.

But now times are changing. During the 2013 football season, several teams will participate in a pilot program that will send results of the Sideline Concussion Assessment Tool to players' EHRs. By 2014, the entire league will transition to EHRs.

By using a unified EHR system across the entire league, the NFL is eliminating individual team records, some of which were electronic and some of which remained paper-based.  But records will now follow players from team to team (even if the switch occurs in the middle of the season), and can be accessed anywhere in the country by a treating physician, whether or not they are a member of the league’s medical staff, according to eClinicalWorks officials who I spoke with at the MGMA (Medical Group Management Association) conference in San Diego earlier this month. 

Additionally, the data available through the central warehouse of information will provide the opportunity to identify patterns in the types of injuries that lead to the most severe results, letting researchers develop rehabilitation plans, workout regimens, and strategies to increase safety, the vendor’s officials said. The EHR will also connect with labs, radiology, picture archiving and communication system (PACS) imaging, and a concussion app.

And according to the LeadingAge, an association with the aim to expand the world of possibilities for the aging society, the NFL is integrating a direct play-by-play video feed into its EHR. That means NFL doctors will be able to view video footage of an injury from within the player’s EHR. This will help doctors make and follow up on treatment plans once the player is off the field.

Since the NFL’s announcement last year, we are seeing other examples of sports franchises advancing in health IT. In August, the Buffalo Bills entered a partnership with the Rochester, N.Y.-based Carestream Health and John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. to devise new digital imaging technology that would help monitor the effects of traumatic brain injury on players. The partnership seeks to develop new technology—not just to drive earlier diagnosis and assessment of injuries, but to develop medical standards that indicate if an athlete can return to play, officials said.

It’s good to see that the NFL, as well as the NBA, will join a very long list of hospitals and care facilities registered in the U.S. who are being pressured by federal mandates to adopt electronic records.

Here’s hoping other sports that deal with high-contact injuries will follow suit and implement similar solutions. I for one know that when I tune in on Sundays to get my NFL fix, I will be happy to see doctors running onto the field with more than just ice packs—for it’s the mobile devices that will better help coordinate care and possibly prevent even more serious injuries.