As an athletic trainer, you’re responsible for making tough calls in challenging circumstances. Coaches are eager for players to return to the field as quickly as possible, and athletes also want to get back in the game, excel and avoid letting down their teammates. Plus, on game day, under the eyes of thousands of fans, the pressure is palpable.
But as a healthcare professional, your primary concern is treating the injury — which often means tuning out the noise. Unfortunately, this tunnel-vision decision making technique directly opposes the principles of athlete-centered care and can make it more challenging to earn players’ trust.
So how can you focus on making the right calls while still building positive relationships with the athletes you treat?
Here’s how to cultivate a more successful athlete-centered approach:
Implement Shared Decision Making
While having a laser-focus is helpful when evaluating injuries under pressure, it’s critical you don’t leave athletes out of your return-to-play decisions. Failing to openly communicate with the players can negatively impact your relationship, which, in turn, affects their confidence in your abilities. And when a player doesn’t have faith in their AT, they’re less likely to take their recommendations seriously.
However, by listening to players, and then sharing your recommendations (as well as their associated risks and benefits), you can reach a treatment decision together. This shared decision making process shows athletes you value their autonomy and view them as a whole person rather than just a problem to solve. Plus, when players are actively involved in creating their care plan, they’re more likely to follow its instructions.
Eliminate Conflicts of Interest
One of the biggest challenges for athletic trainers (and threats to athlete-centered care) is the conflicting objectives between coaches, athletes, trainers and other franchise stakeholders. To ensure you remain focused on the athlete’s wellbeing and avoid conflicts of interest, consider implementing the POPE principle, developed by health law scholar Barry Furrow and outlined in his article, “The Problem of the Sports Doctor: Serving Two (Or Is It Three or Four?) Masters”:
P: Protect athletes from injury and re-injury by placing their welfare above the team.
O: Offer candid and full disclosure about the extent of the injury and consequences of continuing to play.
P: Practice good medicine according to practice guidelines and consensus statement.
E: Enable players to avoid unnecessary risks by educating them on proper treatment, as well as the risks of returning to play. (It’s also crucial you create a clear-cut declaration of ineligibility to play for circumstances when the risks demand the decision be removed from the player and coach.)
By making this principle clear to coaches, players and other stakeholders, you can help shield yourself from demands to return athletes to the field too soon.
Make Wellbeing the Top Priority for Everyone
If you asked coaches and athletes to state their No. 1 goal, most would say, “I want to win.” There’s no doubt about it: the hunger to win, and the desire to succeed is what drives athletes to perform their best. However, this mindset can sometimes lead athletes to play down their injuries and do whatever it takes to get back in the game. When the need to win supersedes wellbeing, athletes can jeopardize their health and put themselves at an increased risk of re-injury.
As an AT, it’s your job to educate players and coaches on the importance of total wellbeing and the serious risks associated with returning to play before an athlete is sufficiently healed.
By focusing on wellbeing first, trainers, coaches and athletes can work together to ensure every player is always in their physical prime before they step onto the field. While adequately treating an injury may mean a player has to sit out the remainder of a game behind the sidelines, it can help reduce the risk of a more severe injury taking them out for an entire season.
There’s no doubt ATs carry a heavy burden. And, when the clock is ticking, and stakes are high, making an unpopular decision isn’t easy. But by adopting shared decision making, reducing conflicts of interest and making wellbeing your leading priority, you can improve athlete-centered care and help improve health outcomes for all the players you treat.
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