How to Become a Sports Doctor

Overview

By Andrew T. Colucci, MD
A young sports medicine doctor

Beyond the personal and professional satisfaction of a career treating patients in both hospitals and clinics, sports medicine doctors also enjoy the opportunity of working for professional or college sports teams. In addition to enjoying the games from the sidelines, many of these physicians are even able to travel with the teams between venues. Not many careers boast such a varied professional landscape, but this variety is just one of the many appealing aspects of becoming a sports medicine physician.

Sports medicine doctors are medical professionals who focus on the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of injuries related to athletic activities. These physicians generally focus on joint, bone and muscle health, although they also offer more generalized medical care to their patients. Sports medicine prepares these physicians for work in both traditional hospital and clinic settings, in addition to sporting events at both the professional and college levels. No matter where they choose to work, sports medicine doctors enjoy the deep gratification of helping active, often health-conscious people recover from sports-related injuries and return to the lifestyles that they love.

Work Environment

The field of sports medicine is relatively new, and continues to evolve. As with all physicians, sports medicine physicians can be found in varied clinical settings, from hospital-based practice to private outpatient clinics. In addition to working with athletic teams, these doctors can also hold positions in fitness centers, large gyms, and at large athletic events such as marathons. Some further specialize on particular groups of patients and their specific needs as they relate to sports medicine (e.g. - geriatric populations or school-age children).

Requirements

Education

Students interested in become a physician must first complete a bachelor’s degree with a pre-med concentration that provides them with a solid foundation in biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry and physics. Gaining admission into medical school can be competitive, so students must complete the aforementioned courses and obtain excellent grades to be considered a viable applicant to medical schools.

Beyond this coursework, students will also be required to perform well on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) in order to secure a spot in medical school. While those interested in sports medicine are usually sports aficionados themselves (and therefore may take part in organized sports), this is in no way a requirement for admission into medical school or sports medicine.

Most sports medicine doctors complete a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. These programs both involve four years of academic coursework in biology, biochemistry, anatomy, pathology, psychology, physiology, medical ethics and pharmacology. Following the completion of medical school, students are awarded their respective degree (M.D. or D.O). Next, these newly minted physicians must go on to complete a clinical residency, which provides them with several years of hands-on practice in a variety of clinical settings under the supervision of fully trained, attending physicians (see below).

Training

Three-year clinical residencies in internal medicine, family medicine, or emergency medicine (or a four-year residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation) all offer suitable training for an aspiring sports medicine physician. Other, more surgically inclined students may instead opt for a five-year residency in orthopedic surgery. During residency, it may be possible to secure an elective rotation in sports medicine to gain early exposure.

Licensing and/or Certification

All states require medical doctors to be licensed, so sports medicine doctors must check with their state’s licensing board for specific requirements.

In addition to a license, doctors may seek certification by a recognized professional organization. This certification will help make the doctor a better job candidate since it will show that he or she has met the organization’s professional requirements and is staying up-to-date in developments in this subspecialty through continuing education courses. Certification in sports medicine is offered by the following organizations:

  • American Board of Medical Specialists (ABMS)
  • American Osteopathic Association (AOA)

Since sports medicine is a subspecialty, doctors must get a certification of added qualification (CAQ) in sports medicine. To prepare for this, doctors complete a two-year fellowship in sports medicine at a hospital, rehabilitation facility or university athletic department. These two years expose doctors to different types of athletic-related injuries and methods of diagnosing and treating them. Additionally, the fellowship provides experience with orthopedic surgeries, rehabilitative techniques, brain trauma, nutrition, and performance psychology. Orthopedic surgeons can also apply for fellowships in this field, but added qualification certification is not required.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

As with all physicians, specialists and non-specialists alike, sports medicine physicians must possess and demonstrate empathy, compassion, strong interpersonal communication abilities, and proficient problem-solving skills in order to provide timely diagnosis and optimal clinical outcomes for their patients. In addition, sports medicine physicians must also possess good physical health, dexterity, and stamina if they intend to perform physical therapy-related treatments.

Opportunities for Advancement

Sports medicine doctors may opt to base their practice in outpatient clinics, large hospitals, or academic medical institutions. Those in private practice can establish their own practices, or join current groups with the ultimate aim of becoming a partner. Alternatively, a position in larger hospitals will provide the sports doctor with opportunities for advancement, depending on experience and continuing education. For example, after several years of productive performance, staff physicians may take on supervisory or management roles, potentially becoming chairperson of a department.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a sports doctor, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary and Job Outlook

Interactive Map of Income and Job Growth Projections

Hover over any state to explore local income and job growth data.

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a median annual salary of $396,233 for all specialty physicians - a group that includes sports medicine physicians - as of 2012. The BLS currently states that the mean salary for physicians broadly is $189,760. Additionally, Salary.com reports that the median salary for sports medicine physicians as of October 2014 is $204,054, with the top ten percent of earners making over $309,000.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for physicians, in general, is projected to be approximately 18% from the years of 2012 to 2022. This faster-than-average growth provides a generally positive outlook for physicians, with sports medicine physicians becoming increasingly more in demand as the population continues to discover the important health benefits of lifelong physical activity.

Further Reading

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