Athlete concussion under-reporting and pressure from stakeholders

By: Christine Baugh

As concussions are increasingly seen as a public health problem, under-reporting and under-diagnosis of concussion is recognized as one barrier to improving the safety of sports participation. A number of studies have previously characterized the extent of under-reporting of concussions among athletes, particularly at the collegiate level. Furthermore, existing research has examined the applicability of theories of behavior change to concussion reporting and created relevant frameworks for examination. Although a growing body of evidence suggests that reporting (or not reporting) a concussion is a decision actively made by the athlete weighing relevant factors, the extent to which interpersonal, intrapersonal, environmental, or policy factors influence athletes’ decisions about whether or not to report a concussion is not fully understood.

A recent study, on which I am a co-author, titled “Concussion under-reporting and pressure from coaches, teammates, fans, and parents,” published in Social Science and Medicine aimed to understand one possible contributory factor to athlete under-report of concussion: pressure on athletes from relevant stakeholders. (Abstract available here.) The survey-based study queried a sample of 328 athletes from 19 contact or collision sports teams (notably excluding football and hockey teams) at 4 colleges in the northeast region of the United States. Among other things, the study asked athletes whether they experienced pressure to return to play after a head impact, specifically asking about pressure from coaches, teammates, parents, and fans. Continue reading

New browser app shines light on conflicts of interest

By: Christine Baugh

A new Google Chrome extension puts the spotlight on conflicts of interest. The browser app, available for free download here, was created at the Hacking iCorruption hackathon event held March 27-29 in Cambridge, MA. The event, co-sponsored by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and the MIT Center for Civic Media (hosted at the MIT Media Lab) brought together individuals with a variety of backgrounds and skills to work toward the common mission of fighting institutional corruption, in this case by creating practical tools. This project was one of several exciting tools created at the hackathon (information about other projects available here), and it won first prize among the projects.

The Chrome extension, called Unearth, puts funding and conflict of interest information on the abstract page of PubMed research articles. Christopher Robertson, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Arizona James E. Rodgers College of Law and Edmond J. Safra Center Fellow who was a member of the Unearth team, explains the rationale for the browser extension in this Youtube video. In short, conflict of interest and funding disclosures are often placed at the end of a research article and are generally unavailable on the abstract page. This makes it impractical for physicians and other research scientists to pay appropriate attention to this important information. Research from the Cochrane Collaboration has demonstrated that research studies funded by industry generally describe “greater benefits and fewer harmful side effects” than their non-industry funded counterparts. Thus, taking the source of research funding into account when reading a new research study is critical. Although the extension currently only works for open access articles from PubMed Central, this includes several million research articles for which funding and conflict of interest information was previously much more difficult to obtain. Additionally, the developers plan on expanding the breadth of coverage in the coming weeks. Continue reading

Youth Sports at a Crossroads (and Project Play Summit streaming today 2/25)

By: Christine Baugh

Youth sports participation comes with a variety of health and social benefits. The position statement put out by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) indicates that over 27 million individuals age 8-17 participate in team sports in the United States, and over 60 million participate in some form of organized athletic activity. These youth and adolescent athletes benefit from  better overall health as well as increased socialization and self-esteem. However, a recent report by the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Initiative indicates that there has been a significant decline in sports participation in recent years.

One factor influencing the decrease in participation may be parental concerns. A recent survey of parents conducted jointly by ESPNw and the Aspen Institute characterized these concerns finding a large percentage of parents were worried about the risk of injury, behavior of coaches, cost, time commitment, and the emphasis on winning over having fun. Concussions and head injuries were the most worrisome injury for parents in this study. Despite this concern, very few parents reported keeping their child from participating in sports due to this risk. The AMSSM position statement characterizes the preoccupation with specialization and competition within sports at such a young age as a risk factor for injury and burnout. Continue reading

Studies provide new insights into youth and adolescent concussion

By: Christine Baugh

In the past several weeks there have been two studies with important implications for youth and adolescent concussions. They are summarized briefly in this post.

Post-Concussion Rest. Thomas and colleagues recently published a study in the journal Pediatrics examining whether standard of care (1-2 days rest) or 5 days of strict rest (both physical and cognitive) following concussion led to better short-term health outcomes in a population of 11-22 year old patients. The full text of this manuscript is available here. Expert consensus recommends strict rest –of relatively undefined duration — followed by a gradual return to cognitive and then physical activity. The study’s authors hypothesized that increased rest would improve outcomes, but found that the strict rest group did not have measurable health improvements compared to standard of care. In fact, symptom reporting was modestly higher in the strict rest group. Main study limitations include: small sample size and short follow-up period (which does not allow for insight as to longer term implications). This was the first randomized control trial of rest duration following concussion diagnosis in a youth and adolescent cohort, and the study added critical information to an important area of inquiry. Continue reading

Classifying Ebola as a National Security Threat

At yesterday’s Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event hosted by the Petrie-Flom Center, George Annas, William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor of Health Law, Bioethics, and Human Rights at Boston University School of Public Health, discussed the legal and public health response to Ebola. One issue that he raised was that in response to the outbreak in West Africa, President Obama classified the situation as a matter of national security rather than a public health issue. It is not clear to me that these categories need be mutually exclusive. (To be clear, Annas did not assert that they were.) Regardless, retrospectively the decision to frame Ebola as a threat to national security appears to have allowed bi-partisan support for a large scale humanitarian aid project, in a way that alternative framing of the problem may not have. It is interesting to note that the President actively encouraged the Ebola outbreak to be perceived as a “biological danger,” a “national security threat,” and “not just a humanitarian or economic concern.” However, framing the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as a national security issue did not only come with the positive externality of increased support for foreign aid. Once a domestic issue, there was some confusion as to who was “in charge” of the handful of Ebola-related issues that arose–with the President appointing an Ebloa Czar, Gov. Christie issuing quarantine notice for Kaci Hickox, and the response of the CDC blaming the nurses for breaking protocol the Dallas hospital case, serving just a few main examples.

Although framing Ebola as a national security issue may have allowed for increased support for the United States’ role internationally, it is unclear whether the domestic response to Ebola could have been more coordinated had this initially been framed as a public health issue.

Concussion laws lead to increase in health care utilization

By Christine Baugh

Between 2009 and 2014 all U.S. States and the District of Columbia implemented concussion legislation. Generally modeled after Washington State’s Zachery Lystedt Law, most of these statutes require that youth and adolescent athletes are provided with information about concussions prior to sports participation, that they are removed from play if they are suspected of having sustained a concussion, and that they receive clearance from a medical professional prior to returning to sports participation. One of the main purposes of the Zachery Lystedt Law, and presumably those laws modeled after it, is to prevent the catastrophic neurological injury that can occur when a youth athlete returns to play too quickly following a concussion.

Gibson and colleagues recently published their study “Analyzing the effect of state legislation on health care utilization for children with concussion,” in JAMA Pediatrics. This study compared concussion care utilization for adolescents age 12 to 18 in states with and without concussion legislation using an insurance claims database. After controlling for potentially confounding factors such as median income and number of insured individuals per state, Gibson et al. found that states that had implemented concussion legislation had increased concussion care utilization (92% increase) compared to those without legislation (75% increase). The increases in care utilization were driven primarily by increases in visits to the doctor’s office and to a neurologist, not through increases in emergency department care, which the authors described as encouraging.

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College Athletic Trainers Report Being Bullied

By Christine Baugh

A recent study indicates that college athletic trainers feel bullied on the job. The study, published in the Journal of Athletic Training, surveyed 723 collegiate athletic trainers, and found that approximately 15% of them felt that they were the victim of workplace harassment and about 20% had witnessed an instance of workplace bullying. Although there were no differences found in who was bullied, the bullies were identified as predominantly male and were most often coaches. A related examination of the perceptions of bullying in this environment, consisting of semi-structured qualitative interviews with select collegiate athletic trainers, identified structural factors associated with increased bullying and suggested workplace training as a potential solution.

The findings of these studies are in line with previous work describing the college sports medicine working environment as fraught with conflicts of interest (discussed in a previous blog post: here). However, the prevalence of bullying found in this study is actually lower than found in other studies examining bullying in other medical workplaces. That said, NCAA guidance suggests that medical professionals, including athletic trainers, should be given “unchallengeable authority” with regards to medical decision-making in the college sports medicine setting. Bullying in the college sports medicine setting occurred more frequently, according to the recent studies, when there was administrative indifference that allowed individuals who “lack respect for the athletic training professional” to act on his feelings.

Given the primary role of the athletic trainers as healthcare providers in the college sports medicine setting, it is possible that the hostility experienced in the workplace ultimately affects collegiate athlete health outcomes. Future research examining the interaction between athletic trainer workplace experience and athlete health outcomes is needed, as are interventions to ensure that athletic trainers are allowed to provide healthcare to collegiate athletes without external impediment.

Upcoming Fairness Hearing in NFL Concussion Litigation

By Christine Baugh

On November 19, Judge Anita Brody will hold a fairness hearing in the class action lawsuit of National Football League (NFL) Players v. NFL re: concussion injury. This is one of the final steps toward final approval (or rejection) of the settlement in the case. Before final approval Judge Brody must determine that the settlement is fair, reasonable, and adequate for the over 20,000 retired NFL players who are included in the class. A variety of concerns have been brought forth publicly regarding the proposed settlement, which received preliminary approval from Brody earlier this year. Around 140 retired NFL players filed objections to the proposed settlement and around 200 have opted out of the class. This blog post provides a brief overview of the settlement and objections to it.

Settlement terms (summarized):

  • Monetary Awards for those with a qualifying diagnosis. Award amount is determined based on a sliding scale that factors in diagnosis, age, and years played in the NFL.
  • Baseline Assessment Program. Class members who are Retired NFL Players have the option to participate in a baseline assessment and medical monitoring program.
  • Education Fund will be established to promote safety and injury prevention in football.

The long-form settlement document can be viewed here.

Concerns (summarized, non-exhaustive): 

A variety of concerns regarding the preliminarily approved settlement have been brought forth through the media and other channels. These are the types of issues that will likely be discussed at the fairness hearing and that Judge Brody will have to weigh in her determination of whether the settlement is fair, adequate, and reasonable for the class as a whole.

Many concerns regard the categories of diagnosis that are eligible for compensation.

Compensable categories are too restrictive: Under the current settlement agreement, former players can be compensated if they have a qualifying diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), death with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (between January 1, 2006 and July 7, 2014), and what are called Level 2 and Level 1.5 Impairment (these categories represent a pattern of performance on a battery of neurocognitive tests that is 2 or 1.7-1.8 standard deviations below normal, respectively). Some have argued that, although the categories included are important to compensate, there are other prevalent problems such as pituitary dysfunctiondepression, and mood and behavioral disorders that are associated with repetitive head trauma and should also be covered by the settlement agreement. Others are concerned that there are characteristics about the existing categories that are problematic (see next two points below).  Continue reading

State Concussion Legislation: Variable Implementation

By Christine Baugh

The most recent issue of the Journal of Law Medicine and Ethics (generously made available for free by the American Society of Law Medicine and Ethics) included several articles examining state concussion laws. One theme that arose across the articles is that although concussion-related legislation is on the books in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the extent to which it is creating an improvement in youth and adolescent athlete health outcomes is unclear.

In their article titled “State experiences implementing youth sports concussion laws: challenges, successes, and lessons for evaluating impact” Kerri McGowan Lowrey and Stephanie Morain interviewed stakeholders (e.g., officials at state departments of public health, state athletic associations) at a majority of states with concussion laws in order to understand how the laws had been implemented. Although previous research in the area (see, for example: Hosea Harvey’s piece in the American Journal of Public Health) presented concussion legislation as relatively homogenous, McGowan Lowrey and Morain’s approach provided critical insight. They found that while the state laws are relatively uniform in their construction, there is substantial variation in their implementation. In particular, McGowan Lowrey and Morain reported variation in compliance with the statutes, variation in how much stakeholders were included during formative stages in the legislation’s composition, and variation in what constituted concussion education.

In another article in the issue, my colleagues Emily Kroshus, Alexandra Bourlas, Kaitlyn Perry, and I specifically examined the concussion education and acknowledgement provisions of state concussion laws. This investigation was conducted in two parts: first we examined what the statute mandated and then we examined what the high school athletic association and/or department of education in that state actually provided for education. Similar to McGowan Lowrey and Morain, we found that implementation did not always match statute. In some promising cases the education provided exceeded the information minimally required by statute. In other situations, the concussion information was provided in such a way that it was required to be returned with a parent signature. In cases like this, compliance with one part of the statute (mandating acknowledgement of receipt of information) may have been compromising another (providing concussion education). Although the education and acknowledgement tenets were relatively similar across states, more heterogeneity was found in the implementation of these aspects of the statutes.

In general, these two studies suggest that the approach for examining statute, and particularly its efficacy, needs to be designed to address implementation stage information. Strict examination of the statutory language obscures critical implementation-level differences. These concussion-related statutes, enacted now in every state, are ostensibly supposed to reduce risk and improve athlete health outcomes. The extent to which they are reliably accomplishing this goal is unclear. What is clear is that implementation of the laws, and enforcement in cases where schools do not abide by statute, are necessary precursors to consistent efficacy. Although it is important that all states have taken steps toward protecting the health and safety of youth and adolescent athletes, approving a statute is not the final step toward this aim. Further research is needed to understand what health effects the current laws are having and critically where improvements can be made in this important area of public health law.

[This post reflects my own views only.  It does not necessarily represent the views of the Petrie-Flom Center or the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University.]

Are we appropriately framing the risks of brain trauma in contact sports?

By Christine Baugh

The recent concussion and sport special issue of the Journal of Law Medicine and Ethics (generously made available free by the American Society of Law Medicine and Ethics: HERE), edited by new Bill of Health contributor David Orentlichter,  includes a number of important works discussing legal and ethical issues related to mild traumatic brain injury sustained through sport. One of the most thought provoking articles in the issue is a piece by Kathleen Bachynski and Daniel Goldberg titled Youth Sports & Public Health: Framing Risks of Mild Traumatic Brain Injury in American Football and Ice Hockey. This piece delves into the important issues of cultural and normative influences on the framing (and thus public understanding) of the risk of brain injury in sport. At the heart of the paper is the assertion that, “The framing of risk is not a neutral, apolitical enterprise,” and that in the United States and Canada highly influential institutional actors such as football and ice hockey leagues have played a formative role in the cultural valuation of the risks inherent in these activities.

Bachynski and Goldberg provide a variety of examples where the overarching questions such as “Are contact sports too risky?” or “What is an appropriate level of risk?” are deferred for easier alternatives. Addressing more focal issues are: State concussion laws which mandate secondary prevention measures, advancement in protective equipment which promises to mitigate risk of injury, rule changes made by sports leagues which aim to make inherently dangerous activities somewhat less dangerous. Rather than addressing the broader risk questions, the implicit assumption in these more focused efforts is that risks are acceptable as long as they are managed. Through what Bachynski and Goldberg assert are concerted efforts on behalf of major stakeholders (e.g., major sports leagues), this has been the predominant frame for risk assessment in contact sports.

Unfortunately, this method of framing risks is not without consequences. Bachynski and Goldberg argue that this framing may alter our understanding of the scope of the problem as well as the most appropriate interventions or solutions. This frame may also inappropriately downplay the need to address the broader moral, social, and political questions that arise from concussions in contact sports. For example, the authors pose the following question, “At what age can players consent to risks of head trauma and associated elevated risks of chronic degenerative neurological disease?”

Answering this question could require a complex weighing of the scientific evidence of the long-term risk of neurodegeneration and balancing it against a variety of factors such as the paternalistic desire to control the population’s ability to partake in self-injurious behavior and the need to protect an individual’s autonomy. (We do, after all, regularly let individuals partake in other dangerous activities—e.g., downhill skiing or driving a car.) We would need to think about questions such as: Should we treat the risk of brain injury differently than bodily injury? Should the risk of delayed or chronic injury be weighed differently given humans’ known difficulty in assessing risk in the distant future? What does scientific evidence have to say about the nature of the risk across age ranges? However, under the current framing these questions are not the ones being addressed. Bachynski and Goldberg’s article elucidates the first step toward addressing concussions from sport: appropriately framing the problem.

[This post reflects my own views only.  It does not necessarily represent the views of the Petrie-Flom Center or the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University.]

Clinicians, Care, and Conflicts of Interest in the Sports Medicine Environment

By Christine Baugh

A recent British Medical Journal blog post by Dr. Michael Stone sheds insight into the professional trials and tribulations of physicians working with professional soccer teams in England. As described, it is not uncommon that the team physician is recommended by a team manager and hired by the team’s executive board without thorough review. This hiring process, in turn, leads to the implicit expectation that the physician answers to the manager rather than the entire team, making the physician’s employment with the team insecure and the need for him to appease the manager a required condition of his employment. Beyond leading to an uncomfortable and potentially ineffective working environment, it is possible that this type of relationship could compromise care. These types of conflicts of interest within the sports medicine environment have been documented elsewhere.

A 2013 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education written by Brad Wolverton detailed a similar phenomenon in American collegiate sports. According to their survey of collegiate sports medicine clinicians, approximately one-third of clinicians indicated that members of the football coaching staff had influence over their employment and about half of clinicians reported having felt pressure from coaches to prematurely return athletes to play. Wolverton was able to provide striking examples of professional relationships between coaches and clinicians that led to compromised care. He also indicated that the topic was so sensitive that very few of the athletic trainers contacted were willing to talk about the issue for fear of losing their jobs.

Both the Stone and Wolverton articles highlight the complexity of sports medicine as a field and the specific conflicts that can arise when competing interests from multiple stakeholders are in play. However, critical to both authors’ conclusions, is that seemingly simple structural changes could play a major role in positively affecting health outcomes. Namely, to ensure quality of care, it is critical that the clinician’s employment is based upon the care he gives to his patients, not the team manager or team coach’s opinions of him. This is not a novel assertion. For example, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (page 65), and others have put forth guidelines and recommendations indicating that having the coach serve as a primary supervisor for a clinician is inappropriate. However, it is not clear that these best practices are being implemented uniformly across sports, leagues, and teams. Given the health risks faced by athletes, and the role that sports medicine clinicians can play in mediating those risks, taking steps such as implementing an appropriate supervisory structure for sports medicine clinicians is imperative.

[This post reflects my own views only.  It does not necessarily represent the views of the Petrie-Flom Center or the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University.]

Parental Consent for Youth Contact Sports Participation

As we enter into the fall sports season, it’s unlikely that a week will go by where we don’t hear the current buzzword in sports community: concussion. Whether in reference to an acute player injury, an untimely death, new or ongoing litigation, or rule changes in sport, the athletic community and the public are increasingly aware of the impacts of these brain injuries. Although much of the media attention is directed toward college and professional athletes, youth and high school athletes significantly outnumber their older counterparts and it is thought that they take longer to recover from these injuries.

A recent publication by Mannings and colleagues surveyed 369 parents of 5-15 year old full-contact football players in order to assess the parents’ understanding of concussion (1). Although the study does have limitations, its finding could have important implications. The parents surveyed were often missing critical information about concussions. For example, less than half of parents correctly identified that concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury. Additionally, none of the parents surveyed correctly identified all of the symptoms of concussion queried in the study. Although it is mandated by statute in the majority of states (2) that parents and/or athletes are provided with information about concussions prior to sports participation, the extent to which the information provided (normally in the form of an information sheet) is read, understood, or retained is not well understood.

Sports participation is associated with a myriad of positive physical, psychological, and social outcomes. However, it also comes with the risk of injury, including concussion. For youth and adolescents, parents play a critical role. Most often, children and adolescents rely on parental consent to participate in sports. Given parents’ role as decision-makers, and the finding of Mannings and colleagues, an important ethical issue that needs to be addressed is what level of knowledge should be required for parents to provide informed consent for their child to participate in inherently risky activities such as contact sports?

[This post reflects my own views only.  It does not necessarily represent the views of the Petrie-Flom Center or the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University.]

Introducing the 2014-2015 Petrie-Flom Student Fellows

The Petrie-Flom Center is pleased to welcome our new 2014-2015 Student Fellows. In the coming year, each fellow will pursue independent scholarly projects related to health law policy, biotechnology, and bioethics under the mentorship of Center faculty and fellows. They will also be regular contributors here at Bill of Health on issues related to their research.

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