Giving elite athletes and their medical teams the data-driven edge

Damian Smith, head of IT, England and Wales Cricket Board, looks at why technology and joined-up care is fundamental to elite sports.

The role of technology in elite sports continues to grow exponentially and areas such as sports medicine, are pushing new standards of integrated care, alongside advancements in monitoring and assessing professional athletes. The increased use of technology not only helps organisations like the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to gain a competitive advantage, but also ensures that athletes are able to compete to the best of their ability.

In order to understand why technology and joined-up care is fundamental to elite sports, it’s important to look at the structure of sporting organisations. For many national governing bodies, like the ECB, elite and professional sport is, ultimately, a business. Like any enterprise, decision-makers look towards data to drive its direction. This means professional sporting teams can be described as ‘data-driven organisations’ and, as a result, this shapes the way that information (especially medical data) is collected, processed and shared between specialist clinicians, coaches and teams.

Complete specialist care

The performance and health of athletes is extremely significant to the overall success of the team, but players are often susceptible and at increased risk of acquiring complex sporting injuries. With this in mind, the effective diagnosis and treatment of such injuries requires input from various specialist medical professionals and a well-integrated and experienced multidisciplinary team (MDT) is crucial to maintaining player performance. Adopting this approach not only enhances the management and prevention of injuries, but it also helps athletes to achieve peak physical health and fitness. Typically, MDTs are made up of doctors, therapists, strength and conditioning trainers and sports scientists, as well as a wider network of specialist support, such as radiologists and surgeons.

This move towards more collaborative care means that MDTs need to be able to easily collaborate and access athletes’ data, like clinical images and medical records. Due to the complex nature of sporting injuries, radiological data and images are regularly required to inform accurate and rapid diagnosis. However, facilitating this can be difficult, especially as viewing DICOM files requires a vast amount of processing power, which often isn’t available through standard laptops.

With teams regularly travelling around the world to compete in matches, it can be difficult for geographically dispersed club doctors and clinicians to access data securely and in a timely manner. For instance, if a player is injured during a match abroad and taken for an MRI scan at a local medical unit, that scan will likely be written to a CD and handed over to the club doctor on site. The process of getting these images into the hands of the home medical team can be very protracted. Historically, elite sports teams haven’t had access to a centralised system for storing those medical images, so images would persist on removable disks and devices. This presents a significant information security challenge for the teams, where athletes’ medical records are subject to a higher standard of privacy and protection given to the sensitivity of the information and the profile of elite players. Furthermore, the general data protection regulations (GDPR), that came into effect in May 2018, sets out mandates around the way that data should be stored and protected.

The above scenario is common for all elite athletes who are injured when competing overseas and sporting bodies have a responsibility to ensure data privacy and security considerations are adhered to. With a need for the stringent protection of athletes’ medical data and easy access to information, sporting organisations, including ECB, are increasingly looking to the Cloud. The adoption of medical imaging technology, such as an Independent Clinical Archive (ICA), can solve this issue, as it provides clinicians with a central, standards-based, intelligent repository, to which they can securely upload, store, protect and view athletes’ medical images and associated data, anywhere, anytime, on any device.

Secure data storage and access for the future

With athlete data residing in the Cloud and utilising a highly secure, diagnostic-grade, zero footprint viewer; medical data can be easily accessed by different groups of specialist clinicians and the team doctors that specifically have permission to view it. In ECB’s case, it means that if one of our players is injured abroad and has an MRI scan taken, that image can be uploaded into our BridgeHead ICA, HealthStore, then viewed simultaneously by the onsite clinicians and the team doctors in the UK (usually as part of an MDT). This allows specialists at home and away to view and collaboratively decide on the most suitable medical action.

Storing medical data together in one central location, not only eliminates data silos but additionally, makes it much easier to protect valuable medical information in the event of corruption, loss or a data breach. Aggregating medical data also has clinical benefits as it provides a 360-degree view of an athlete’s medical history for enhanced long-term care and provides clinicians, sports scientists and performance managers with the opportunity to monitor injury patterns and develop techniques and best practice for minimising common problems.

These capabilities are valuable to the entire elite sport ecosystem, as readily accessible medical data not only helps with the diagnosis and treatment of injuries, but can also help coaching staff to gain a deeper understanding of peak player performance. Ultimately, having access to a central store of player information provides the basis for an increased use of analytics and a greater focus on the wellbeing of elite athletes. Whether it be enhancing player selection or examining the progression of injuries, medical data can help teams to make informed decisions that safeguard, as well as enhance performance. The elite sports industry has already seen a rise in the capture, collection and analysis of players’ data and as time goes on, we’ll see more clubs using analytics in order to give player’s that data driven edge.


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