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Preparticipation Cardiovascular Screening: Toward a National Standard

David L. Herbert, JD


In Brief: In the absence of a national requirement for cardiovascular screening of competitive high school and college athletes, some physicians have been vulnerable to lawsuits in the wake of sudden cardiac deaths in athletes. The American Heart Association recently recommended routine cardiovascular screening for athletes and a specific screening protocol. To best serve the athletes and their healthcare providers, the author suggests that national sports governing organizations should make cardiovascular screening a national requirement in preparticipation evaluations.

When a high-profile professional or college athlete collapses on the basketball court, the press and public understandably pay attention (1). Sudden cardiovascular-related collapse or death is dramatic and shows the vulnerability of even the most fit among us. Less publicized but no less dramatic are similar events that befall less well-known and seemingly healthy high school and college athletes (2). Many believe that some of these tragedies could be avoided through universal cardiovascular screening of athletes, but the nation's student-athletes and their medical providers still await a vehicle for uniformly requiring such screening.

Ideally, every athlete with some latent but potentially fatal cardiovascular condition could be identified and either treated or steered away from participation in competitive athletics or strenuous recreational activity. Presently, however, reaching this goal seems unlikely, if not impossible. There is currently no cost-effective battery of tests that identifies all, or even most, dangerous cardiovascular conditions. Some in the medical profession, nevertheless, have wondered if more could be done to help prevent cardiovascular-related tragedies. As a result of this concern, the American Heart Association (AHA) appointed a panel of cardiovascular specialists, other experienced physicians, and a legal expert to develop recommendations for preparticipation cardiovascular screening of competitive high school and college athletes.

Recommendations Only...

In June 1996, the AHA panel published recommendations (3) calling for a "complete and careful personal and family history and physical examination designed to identify (or raise suspicion of) those cardiovascular lesions known to cause sudden death or disease progression in young organized high school (grades 9 through 12) and collegiate sports." The panel suggests screening every 2 years performed "by a healthcare worker with requisite reliably obtain a detailed cardiovascular history, perform a physical examination, and recognize heart disease." The panel also calls for the development of "a national standard for preparticipation medical evaluations."

Although the panel's statement characterizes itself as "recommendations" and not a "requirement," it has clear medicolegal significance that may not have been intended. The recommendations could be used in litigation as a benchmark with which to compare and evaluate medical conduct. Through expert testimony in medical malpractice cases, the statement could become rather strong evidentiary support for a particular medical standard of care. Consequently, the AHA document, along with related recommendations such as those of the 26th Bethesda Conference (4), is important for both patients and physicians.

...Or a Medical Standard?

One statement in particular makes the AHA document akin to a standards statement. The recommendations state, "Such cardiovascular screening is an obtainable objective and should be mandatory for all athletes (3)." If a panel of medical experts appointed by a recognized medical association says that cardiovascular screening of athletes should be mandatory, and is supported in this recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Cardiology and by the board of trustees of the American College of Cardiology, how can anyone effectively argue in a legal setting that such screening is not a necessary part of the care that providers owe to patients?

Given this interpretation of this one sentence, providers conducting preparticipation physical examinations of athletes should include the cardiovascular screening procedure suggested in the AHA's recommendations. Failure to do so could result in a legal claim that a student's medical care fell below expected standards. Thus, what may not have been intended by the statement's authors may well become a result of its wording and publication.

Considering what could be at stake for a young athlete and the examining physician who uses some protocol other than the AHA's recommendations, why wouldn't practitioners use the suggested cardiovascular screening process as a matter of course, especially when the cost and effort in this process are minimal? As the AHA consensus panel found (3), the failure to perform cardiovascular screening may arise from the lack of uniform national requirements for screening athletes. While several national medical organizations have jointly published guidelines for preparticipation physical examinations of athletes (5), there is presently no way to ensure that these guidelines are followed in the examinations of all high school and college athletes.

Needed: A National Standard

At the high school level, prerequisites to athletic participation are generally established through school boards or districts in conjunction with state high school athletic associations. Given the number of states and the thousands of school districts that set requirements for athletes, one can only imagine the multitude of divergent preparticipation physical examination guidelines there may be. Although there is a National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSHSA) that includes more than 50 state high school athletic organizations, it has adopted no requirement for a standardized preparticipation physical examination for high school athletes.

At the college level, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has published a statement regarding preparticipation evaluations (6), but it provides only general recommendations regarding the content of the evaluation process. The NCAA requires no specific examination protocols, preferring to leave these in the hands of each member institution. The result is a diversity of procedures, protocols, and requirements in colleges and universities.

If preparticipation screening recommendations are to benefit and cover all athletes and medical providers, national umbrella organizations, like the NFSHSA and the NCAA, need to develop a system for adopting and implementing statements such as the new AHA recommendations, so that the guidelines might become a universal format for all preparticipation evaluations. Such a systematic approach would protect athlete-patients by requiring adherence to a comprehensive, nationally derived standard of care. It would also protect providers, who are increasingly held accountable to such a standard of care anyway.


  1. Herbert DL: Another professional basketball player dies. Sports Medicine Standards and Malpractice Reporter 1993;5(2):17,19-20
  2. Herbert DL: Two athletes die. Sports Medicine Standards and Malpractice Reporter 1995;7(1):12
  3. Maron BJ, Thompson PD, Puffer JC, et al: Cardiovascular preparticipation screening of competitive athletes: a statement for health professionals from the Sudden Death Committee (clinical cardiology) and Congenital Cardiac Defects Committee (cardiovascular disease in the young), American Heart Association. Circulation 1996;94(4):850-856
  4. 26th Bethesda Conference: Recommendations for determining eligibility for competition in athletes with cardiovascular abnormalities. Med Sci Sports Exer 1994;26(10 suppl):5223-5283
  5. American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, American Osteopathic Academy of Sports Medicine: Preparticipation Physical Evaluation, ed 2. Minneapolis, New York City, McGraw-Hill, Inc, 1997
  6. Benson M (ed): NCAA Sports Medicine Handbook. Overland Park, Kansas, NCAA, 1996

Mr Herbert is a senior partner at the law firm of Herbert and Benson and coeditor of The Sports Medicine Standards and Malpractice Reporter, a publication of PRC Publishing, Inc, in Canton, Ohio. He is an editorial board member of The Physician and Sportsmedicine. Address correspondence to David L. Herbert, Herbert & Benson, Attorneys & Counsellors at Law, The Belpar Law Center, 4571 Stephen Circle, NW, Canton, OH 44718-3629.



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