Pampering student-athletes

Student-athletes’ health care reflects our nation’s overuse of antibiotics.

The Oct. 11 article “Clinic focuses on treating student-athletes’ ailments,” raised interesting questions about the care of student-athletes. Should student-athletes be entitled to a different level of care than other students, and would a different level of care be in their best interest and in the best interest of our community? To state that the student-athlete should have their cold or viral infections treated more quickly, because “we don’t necessarily have that luxury (to have a student lounge around in bed for a few days)” implies they are receiving another form of treatment, presumably an antibiotic. As any first-year student in Biology 1001 knows, a virus won’t benefit from an antibiotic. More than 90 percent of sore throats are due to viral infections; the only bacterial infection of concern that causes sore throat is Group A Beta-hemolytic strep, of which a rapid strep test is very accurate in diagnosing.

Treating a sore throat or other viral infections with antibiotics, without knowing the cause, is not the community standard of care. To imply that a student-athlete gets better care because they get a “quick fix” with an antibiotic for a viral infection is just wrong. In fact, it may also be potentially harmful to the entire community because it enhances the development of drug-resistant organisms.

A paper by Dr. Sophia Kazakova in the February 2005 New England Journal of Medicine states that professional football players received 10 times the national average of antibiotics for infections compared with the general population. This was not because they had that many more infections than the average individual but because of the preferential treatment they received. While this article focused on professional football players, the concerns raised about overuse of antibiotics are relevant to University athletes because of the relatively recent development of a new infection in the community (and seen in our athletes), Methicillin-resistant staph aureus. This is a nasty bacterium, which can be life-threatening and usually begins as a simple skin infection, that can no longer be treated with penicillin or erythromycin because of the development of antibiotic resistance. Why? Simple overuse of antibiotics is felt to be the cause.

Second, consider the antics of our local professional football team, the Minnesota Vikings. Individuals who allegedly felt they were above the law and community standards of decency because they were “entitled.” How did this all develop? Individuals who felt they were empowered and didn’t have to follow the normal social norms, just because they were athletes. This isn’t to imply our present-day athletes at the University are following these footsteps, but there are accounts of it in its past (Mitch Lee, basketball, in 1986 for sexual assault).

While treatment of colds is an example of why special treatment of athletes may not always be a good idea, there are other ethical questions to consider. Is this the most effective and efficient use of health care resources? What expectations are we instilling in athletes about their role in society? Are we teaching athletes how to be knowledgeable consumers of health care?

At Boynton Health Service students get excellent care in a timely, efficient and economically feasible manner. We have seasoned physicians, many with years of experience both in private practice and at Boynton. Many of Boynton’s providers have years of experience working with collegiate, Olympic and professional athletes in this community and nationwide. We don’t have the luxury of having one provider per 175 patients like the athletics department, because to do so would be too expensive for the student population to afford.

The article implies that student-athletes should get special treatment. But should they? Consider the consequences in both the short and long term.

BJ Anderson is an M.D. for Boynton Health Service. Please send comments to [email protected]