April 26, 2023

Don't delay if you want to play

UW Health urges families to schedule sports physicals now

MADISON, Wis. – Now is the time for young athletes to schedule pre-participation sports physicals with their primary care physicians so they are not prevented or delayed from participating in high school sports this summer, according to a UW Health Kids expert.

The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association requires athletes to have completed a pre-participation physical exam before the first day of practice, so failure to complete this required exam on time can prevent athletes from starting their sport this summer, according to Dr. David Bernhardt, pediatric sports medicine physician, UW Health Kids, and professor of pediatrics, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Given limited primary care access across the state, by scheduling the physical now families can avoid the last-minute scramble, he said.

“We don’t want any obstacles for kids to participate in sports so knowing how hard it can be to schedule last-minute appointments with primary care locations, we encourage families to call today,” Bernhardt said. “Pre-participation physical exams, which typically include a review of health history and examination of the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems, have long been used in the United States to detect conditions that predispose the athlete to injury or illness.”

UW Health offers free sports physical exams for those who are uninsured each summer. In August 2022, UW Health saw a record number of students come to its free, uninsured sports medicine clinic to get their pre-participation physicals. However, about half were students who had insurance but were not able to get in to see their primary care doctor in time because they waited too long to make an appointment, according to Bernhardt.

“We were able to meet the needs of all student-athletes in last summer’s clinic, but we prefer to leave the spaces open for those without insurance, so we urge families to plan ahead,” he said. “UW Health, similar to other clinics in the area and across the state, is looking for different ways of increasing access.”

Families and athletes should approach these exams with more than just sports in mind and see these exams as an opportunity for overall adolescent health care, Bernhardt said.

“Sports physicals are often the only time that adolescents have time with their primary care provider outside of visits for injuries or illness, so it makes sense that we use this time to evaluate kids for more than just their readiness to engage in sports,” he said. “There are many other topics that we should be discussing, like mental health, nutrition and other adolescent risk-taking behavior, which can be just as important to a child’s short- and long-term wellbeing.”

Athletes should go to their primary care provider, if they have one, for these exams because it ensures continuity of care and allows the athlete’s provider to identify changes over time and react appropriately, Bernhardt said.

Physical exams that are performed in retail-based clinics or schools often lack privacy, which can make it less likely for adolescents to disclose private concerns during the exam, he said.

Originally published 4/28/22. Updated 4/26/22.