Olympic Healthcare: From Tooth Decay to Broken Bones

Posted on Feb 22, 2018 by Lori Boyer

Alongside household names like Shaun White and Chloe Kim, there may be a few 2018 Olympic participants you are not quite as familiar with. Mark Hutchinson. Christopher Gee. Ted Paisley. Who are they? Just a small part of the healthcare team for the U.S. Olympic participants.

For those of us working in the healthcare field, every time a skier crashes, a hockey player breaks a bone, or a figure skater crashes to the ice, the question arises—how is healthcare handled at the Olympic Games?

U.S. Olympic Sports Medicine Team

Dr Yoo-shik volunteers at the olympic gamesU.S. doctors at the Olympics spend years working to earn a spot as a medical volunteer for the Games. Once they’ve received the final go-ahead, they work with the USOC Sports Medicine Division to oversee the health of Olympians in South Korea.

Before each Olympic Games, a team of healthcare volunteers are assembled. This team includes physicians, chiropractors, nurses, orthopedists, physical therapists, massage therapists, nurses, athletic trainers, and more. These specialists work with the Olympians during training as well as the actual events. They work with a specific team or float between different events. They are on-call at all times for any emergencies that may arise with the U.S. team. They also assist at both the USA medical clinic as well as the athletes' village polyclinics.  And they do it all without earning a dime.

Most Team USA physicians arrived about a week before the Olympics start and will stay until until everyone else has gone home. 

As Dr. Roh Yoo-shik, a medical volunteer at the 2018 Oylmpic games, put it, "We look at all aspects of the athlete’s well-being ranging from the common flu to fractures. Also, we check the status of the players daily, while providing support during the actual Games so that we can respond immediately to accidents that may occur. It means that our team will be on a 24/7 alert during the duration of the Olympics."

Olympic Polyclinic

Healthcare extends beyond the U.S. clinic. American doctors also work closely with the local medical Olympic doctors tend to an injured athletestaff set up at the Games. In PyeongChang, two polyclinics and 18 medical stations are set up in the athletes’ village to provide needed medical care. The polyclinic runs as a small general hospital that serves mainly outpatients. Around 30 doctors, from otolaryngologists to gynecologists, are available to see not just athletes, but any authorized person in the village. Athletes can access everything from acupuncture to dentistry to psyciatric help at these clinics. Volunteers at these polyclinics speak English, French, and Korean to help with translation challenges. 

Outside of the village, there are an additional thirty-four medical stations that have been set up at sporting venues and other popular areas. Patients who need additional or more complex care are transported to one of the Olympic-designated hospitals after treatment at the polyclinic. 

A trip to the games = a trip to the dentist?

Did you know that Olympic athletes have significantly worse oral health than the general population? The hours of intense physical effort, as well as the gallons of energy drinks, gels and bars they consume are not friendly to an athlete's teeth. Dehydration from sweating can also reduce the amount of saliva a person needs to regenerate tooth enamel.

Dental equipment used at the PyeongChange Winter GamesA study that looked at 278 visitors to the clinic at the 2012 London Olympic Games found 55 percent had cavities and three-quarters diseased gums, 15 percent of which with serious periodontitis. One-quarter of Olympic athletes said they had dental problems which affected their quality of life. As Tony Clough, who helped run the 2012 Olympic dental clinic, explained, “We had patients coming in at 10:30 at night to have root canals and things like that." 

Dentists at the Olympics are busy in South Korea keeping smiles on the faces of athletes day in and day out. The typical set up includes multiple dental chairs, x-ray machines, and oral surgical facilities. Full-time dentists are often on call at events that may result in facial injuries (like hockey) or the loss of a tooth. 

Treatment is free.

Some Olympians “know they’ve had a dental problem for three weeks or a month or three months, but they know if they can hold off until they get to the games they get it treated for free,” Paul Piccininni, IOC dental committee member, said. “That’s fine. That’s one of the reasons that we’re there, is because athletes don’t have the financial resources.”

 (Speaking of smiles...South Korea has been busy training their local people over the past few years to SMILE more so that they are friendly and welcoming to foreigners. They have a full campaign called K-smile. Check it out here. Hopefully, they have dedicated hours to getting beautiful smiles at their dentist!)

Fun side note

The healthcare for Olympians before and after the games is also incredible. At the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association's Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah, athletes take advantage of the latest and greatest gym equipment and technology. Athletes have access to virtual reality setups to simulate events, computers analyzing data to enhance performance, and strobe glasses to help retrain the brain after knee injuries. Read this article to get more info on groundbreaking medical technology being used to help athletes get the edge they need to win.

Wondering if your practice is giving patients an "Olympic" experience? Ask them! Read this checklist to learn how. 

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Lori Boyer

Lori Boyer

Lori Boyer has spent over a decade developing content and customer strategy for a wide variety of companies. She especially loves "walking a mile" in the shoes of her target audience. At Solutionreach we focus on relationships - building and maintaining them. She does the same. Lori Boyer is a lover of crisp fall mornings, a good book, and just about anything Beauty and the Beast related.

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