Malpractice in the Sports Arena

Physician's Money Digest, May 31 2003, Volume 10, Issue 10

They're almost completely anonymous. You rarelysee their names in the newspaper. Yet they'reresponsible for the health and physical well-beingof some of the most highly paid individuals on the planet.And, frankly, it's starting to make them nervous.

If you could gain entry to the locker room of yourfavorite professional sports team, you'd probably find aphysician treating the athletes' sprains and bruises,along with more serious injuries like a torn-up knee cartilageor a damaged rotator cuff. Since professionalsports teams generally go for the best care available,the prestige linked to the job is high, but the pay is usuallya pittance, generally in the low 5-figure range forthe season, with some perks like box tickets thrown in.The liabilities, some team physicians say, are far higher,and many are rethinking their team doctor jobs.

DOCTORS OUT

While the medical malpractice crisis brews across thenation, a couple of high-profile lawsuits in professionalsports, including a $100-million wrongful-death suitbrought by the widow of Minnesota Vikings footballplayer Korey Stringer, and a $1.3-million verdict in a suitbrought against the Philadelphia Flyers by former hockeyplayer Dave Babych, are giving team doctors sweatypalms. According to a recent USA Today report, severalteam physicians, including Dr. Arthur Bartolozzi, anorthopedic surgeon and the defendant in the Babychsuit, have quit rather than take on the risk of a lawsuitby a multimillionaire athlete. Dr. Bartolozzi, accordingto published reports, got $15,000 and free tickets forhis services, while a $1-million malpractice policy costhim $250,000. Another aspect of the problem is the capon most malpractice policies, limiting payouts to $1 million,even though the doctor's patients are most likelymaking an 8- or even 9-figure salary.

In some cases, the teams have taken on the responsibilityof providing malpractice coverage for theirphysicians. In Canada, for example, when the CanadianMedical Protective Association stopped providing malpracticecoverage for doctors who worked for professionalteams, individual clubs agreed to pay for privatemalpractice insurance for their team doctors. Still, atleast 4 Canadian team physicians thought that the coveragewas inadequate and quit.

Another solution that some teams have taken is tomake team doctors part-time employees, which preventsplayers from filing malpractice suits, because thelaw generally prevents an employee from suing anemployer for injuries suffered on the job. Still anotheralternative, which both players and doctors tend toview with some skepticism, is for clubs to sell sponsorshiprights to health care entities, which then providecare to the athletes in return for the right to call themselvesthe "official health care provider" to the club.

Players wonder about the quality of care they mightget from a sponsoring health care group, while teamofficials counter that sponsorship has little to do withwho provides care, because sponsors don't have anexclusive right to service the team. In many cases, infact, sponsorship may give a health care group nothingmore than stadium signage and a luxury box. Also,since pro players are the team's most expensive assets,management claims it makes sense to provide themwith the best quality care.

WAITING GAME

Team and league officials also point out that,despite a couple of highly publicized suits, there arefew malpractice suits overall in professional sports andthat a minuscule number are successful. Perhapsbecause the perceived threat is more pronounced thanthe actual one, many executives from professionalleagues, although they are aware of the team doctors'unease, are taking a wait-and-see attitude, maybe inthe hope that legislative initiatives may improve themalpractice insurance environment before any definitiveaction on their part is needed.