Athletic Trainers Help Solve the Patient Care Crunch

Athletic Training graduate students practice spine evaluations on each other as Assistant Professor Sadie Buboltz-Dubs, background, observes technique and gives feedback in the Athletic Training Lab inside Laboratory Sciences on the UW-Green Bay, Green Bay campus on Nov. 1, 2022. UW-Green Bay, Sue Pischke University Photographer

“It’s cool to see how far athletic training has come from sports medicine,” says Corbin. “Now it’s everywhere from aeronautics to pediatrics—in all these different industries that now see the need for athletic trainers.”

Without a doubt, the medical community needs help. In a recent study from the Journal of General Internal Medicine, authors of the article, Revisiting the Time Needed to Provide Adult Primary Care, explained that physicians would need approximately 26.7 hours each day to provide the appropriate care to patients, based on the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force guidelines. With only 24 hours in each day, something’s got to give. Many times, it’s patient care. What patients need—and should expect—is their doctor taking the time to answer questions. Athletic trainers can provide physicians with the help they need.

Many people may think of an athletic trainer as someone running onto the field to assess an athlete that’s down, and assisting them back to the sideline. In fact, athletic training has evolved a long way from the sidelines. Today, an athletic trainer may be the first person a patient sees at their doctor’s appointment. In this “physician extender” setting, an athletic trainer is charged with doing the initial assessment, gathering pertinent information and then working with a physician to share ideas and potential treatment options for the patient.

And athletic training students are seeing value in that new role option. “I love working with the variety of patients,” says Madeliene Corbin, a UW-Green Bay masters of athletic training student in her final year of the program. She’s participated in a number of clinical rotations to earn her degree, including time assessing sports injuries both at the high school and collegiate level. But her favorite clinical experience was her work as a physician extender. “We can see anything from a 10-year old soccer player with an ankle injury to a 72-year old woman who is getting her physical. We aren’t just helping one specific population but helping everyone.”

While shadowing an orthopedist’s physician extender, Corbin noticed the collaboration that happens between the physician and their physician extender. After the initial assessment, the extender, “talked with the doctor and gave her opinion on what was going on with the patient. Maybe they are having sleep issues or experiencing anxiety and possibly need a mood stabilizer prescribed,” says Corbin. “Together they return to the patient’s room and the physician can spend more time with the patient talking through next steps, share the athletic trainer’s insights and how they can help, and how to best care for themselves and get better.”

An athletic trainer as a physician extender can give physicians more time to help patients understand their diagnosis, the proper next steps for care, and provide much needed perspective on expectations. Corbin also shares that through her athletic training curriculum, she has learned what it takes to be the first person a patient sees. “We do the assessment, patient history and initial intake,” says Corbin. “And will go to the physician and explain what we’ve learned,” providing value-added information for physicians on what the patient might be experiencing.

Physician extenders are becoming more common. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since 2018 physician extender jobs have been growing at a much faster than average rate, estimating 31% growth from 2018 through 2028. That growth is not surprising considering the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) shows that athletic trainers improve physician efficiencies in the physician extender role.  In fact, “…orthopedic, family, pediatric, sports medicine and physiatry practices are increasingly recognizing the value athletic trainers (ATs) contribute to clinical outcomes, patient satisfaction and the care continuum.” To the extent that NATA now promotes hiring athletic trainers as physician extenders.

Immersive clinical options for Master of Athletic Training students, including the physician extender, are the norm at UW-Green Bay. Program professors have developed positive, collaborative relationships with local clinics, hospitals, school districts, and sports teams as well as manufacturing facilities and small businesses. Students have a number of options to consider based on their talents and interests in the program.

“We help students find the best fit for their immersive experience,” says William Gear, assistant professor and director of the Master of Athletic Training program. “Students have a healthy amount of input (into the program) including where they want to go throughout the country.”

In fact, last year one UW-Green Bay Master of Athletic Training students worked with a club rodeo team at New Mexico State University. “We want to ensure they have an immersive experience that helps them with their future career path,” Gear said.

The traditional job for an athletic trainer is evolving, and Corbin and her classmates are ready to take on what’s next. “It’s cool to see how far athletic training has come from sports medicine,” says Corbin. “Now it’s everywhere from aeronautics to pediatrics—in all these different industries that now see the need for athletic trainers.”

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