Return To Play PCP Discussion | UPMC Sports Medicine

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– Athletes require a well-rounded team to help support them both when they’re healthy and when they’re injured. That team may include family members, coaches, and teammates. And it’s also where primary care sports medicine physicians play a key role. Often, these physicians are on the sidelines of high school, college, and professional games and are first responders when an athlete is injured. Primary care sports medicine physicians also get to know the athletes and help with conditioning, overall wellness, and more. Hi, I’m Charlie Batch. Yes, that Charlie Batch, if the name is familiar to you. and I am here with Jeanne Doperak, a primary care sports medicine physician with UPMC Sports Medicine. Dr. Doperak, thanks for joining me today.

– Thanks for having me, Charlie. I’m really excited to be here.

– You talk about primary care sports physician. What exactly does that mean?

– Yeah, thanks for asking that. So, a primary care sports physician is a physician. So, someone who’s gone to medical school and graduated and done a residency or training in a primary specialty, which could include family medicine, internal medicine, emergency medicine, even pediatrics or physical medicine and rehabilitation. They then go on to do a one-year fellowship or added training in sports medicine. This is non-operative care of the injured athlete and includes things like how we take care of athletes nutritionally and fuel them, how we take care of the mentally. It expands on our primary care training, specifically looking at the needs of the athlete.

– Now, what role do you play in treating athletes?

– Well, the role I play, it’s just one piece of the much bigger puzzle. And so, a lot of times the first person you see on the field evaluating an athlete is our athletic trainers. And then after the athletic trainer deems that they have an injury that needs to be seen by the physician, they’ll call us, at which point we try to help direct care. So, maybe that means ordering an imaging study, maybe it means doing some sort of rehab program. Sometimes it means contacting one of my colleagues within UPMC because they need specialty care. We as primary care sports physicians help to diagnose and formulate treatment plans for our athletes.

– Now, what are some of the common conditions that you actually treat?

– Yeah. So, common conditions, really, I would tell you that there’s no such thing as common in my world. I see everything. And I often say I’m never going to be surprised because every time I think, “Well, this is the weirdest thing I’m ever going to see,” then the next week something weirder comes through the door. But on a day-to-day basis, if I think about even in the last week, I’ve seen everything from just common colds, to stomach flu, to sometimes females will have issues with their menstrual cycles that we’re trying to figure out. I’ve treated someone with thyroid disease who’s an athlete, and we’re managing their thyroid hormone to get them to peak performance. We treat rashes. So, it’s really a general medical doctor. So, I’m treating really most everything that people could come through the door with.

– How do you incorporate injury prevention methods into your practice?

– Well Charlie, Hippocrates had said the greatest medicine of all is teaching people how to not need it. And we really practice that at UPMC Sports Medicine. We’ve worked with exercise scientists over the last several years to develop prevention programs in all sports. One of the ones that’s most commonly utilized is our ACL prevention program. We’ve shown scientifically to reduce the risk of ACL tears, especially in young women, when they follow our ACL prevention program. This can be incredibly impactful to a young athlete’s career. And this is only one of the preventive services that we offer. We also look at aspects like fueling the athlete through our nutrition services, and even mental health services to get an athlete both mentally and physically ready to play.

– What type of treatments do you most often use?

– Well, Charlie, when someone’s injured, I would say far and away the most common treatment is our physical therapy and rehab services. We really rely on them to help to get the athlete back to peak performance. Sometimes, in the office, however, we may also do some sort of bracing or splinting. We may talk about an injection if it’s appropriate. We also may talk about a modification in an activity. So, for instance, if I have a swimmer, we may talk to them about just not using one certain kick or arm pull for a period of time until they recover.

– And you focus on nonsurgical treatment and care, but what happens if an athlete needs surgery?

– Yeah. And that happens often. Unfortunately, it happens often. And when that occurs, we work with a team of surgeons at UPMC Sports Medicine that are second to none. And when I see an athlete with an injury and we perhaps get imaging like an MRI to diagnose this, then we can determine which of my surgical colleagues is best suited to treat that injury. So at UPMC Sports Medicine, we have a complement of surgical specialties, including hand and wrist, we have foot and ankle surgeons, we have surgeons that specialize in shoulder, and knee, and hip. And so depending on what the injury is and what the diagnosis is, we can be sure to get you to the right surgeon, who can give you the best outcome from your injury.

– Now, how do you determine if an athlete is ready to return to play?

– Well, it’s really a team approach. And so, we, we work together to determine when an athlete is ready to return. And not only does that mean ready to return physically, but also mentally ready to return. And we do have a team of mental health experts that work with us in mental health training as we’re returning an athlete to play. So from a physical standpoint, we can look at parameters measured by physical therapists and athletic trainers. We can have a gradual return to progression, where we’re watching them on the field and seeing that they’re achieving certain milestones or tasks to move on to the next goal. From a mental standpoint, that can be something that actually lags behind the physical performance. We really work with our team of experts to make sure an athlete is mentally prepared and confident to take the playing surface.

– You mentioned your team of experts. Does that include coaches and trainers as well?

– Well, it certainly includes athletic trainers, Charlie. I work with some of the best athletic trainers in the business, and I rely on them every day to help with all of these processes. We involve coaches in a lot of these discussions, but the coaches that I work with, we really are sure to stay in what I call our own lane. So, they are not going to treat medical problems, and I won’t tell them which play to call on the next series.

– I understand completely. So I know once the athlete is ready to return to play, what is the procedure as it relates to the follow-up care?

– Well, we do follow the athletes closely. And again, it comes back to those athletic trainers that we have at a lot of our schools. The athletic trainer is checking in before and after each practice with the athlete, to make sure that they haven’t had any problems during the practice, and there’s nothing further that needs addressed.

– I know you spend a lot of time with athletes, but what is your favorite part of the job?

– That is an easy question to answer, Charlie. I do spend a lot of time with athletes at all levels of performance, but my absolute most favorite part of my job is the people I get to work with. I work with amazing people in a team that really goes above and beyond in all situations to provide excellent care. It really is, it even comes down to the student-athletes, to the athletes that I work with. My players, my athletic trainers, my fellow physicians. I just enjoy — the physical therapists, the nutritionists, the mental health experts. I really enjoy working with each and every one of them. And they are by far my most favorite part of my job.

– Now, what about the smiles on the athletes’ faces when they’ve recovered, and knowing that you were part of that recovery?

– That is so rewarding, especially when we see them be successful, or I have athletes that reach back out and they’ll send me a picture of that home run they just hit, or the touchdown they scored. And I’m only facilitating the process. They’ve done all of the work, but to be able to help guide them and get them to the point where they they’re back out there doing what they love, it really couldn’t be more rewarding.

– Dr. Doperak, thank you for sharing that very important information. Athletes are so lucky to have you. And if you are interested in learning more about the programs and services offered at UPMC Sports Medicine, visit

About Sports Medicine

An athletic lifestyle carries the potential for injury. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, our multidisciplinary team of experts can help you get back into the game. If you are seeking to improve your athletic performance, we can work with you to meet your goals. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our goal is to help you keep doing what you love. Visit our website to find a specialist near you.