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Sporting events and Emergency Department visits
Written by Ardena L. Flippin, MD, MBA   

After more than twenty-five years of practicing emergency medicine, I have finally had something established that I have always thought was true. A study in Boston has quantified and confirmed that the ebb and flow of emergency department visits is dramatically affected by major televised sporting events.

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Of course, I know that I am dating myself when I confess that my first experience with this phenomenon was when Muhammad Ali was in his prime and I was an intern at Baylor in Houston, Texas.

In a recent review of three year’s of cases at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, Dr. David Jerrard noted that “a drop in the number of men going to the emergency room during sports broadcasts on TV is followed by a surge afterward.” This study confirms a previous study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine (October 2005) in which researchers were able to quantify the magnitude of the events using television Nielsen ratings; they showed that the bigger or more suspenseful the event, the quieter the emergency department. 

Drs. John Brownstein and Ben Reis of Children’s Hospital Boston were able to “show an inverse relationship between Boston Red Sox viewer ship and six Boston hospital emergency department visits.”  The higher the Nielsen ratings, the quieter are the emergency departments.

As we enter NBA basketball playoff season, consider that we barely miss a month without a major football, baseball, NBA or college basketball-sporting event, and this raises a myriad of questions about alcohol, discretion, decision trees, public health and spectator events.

According to a Cleveland Clinic Quality Measures article “spectator events can represent a significant health risk to the fan. The most recently published data indicate that the average NFL stadium can expect 1-4 cases of cardiac arrest each season. On a per person per hour basis, it is safer to be on the field than in the stands”.

This probably refers as much to couch potatoes as it does to type A personality- patients who look forward to escaping from work/stress-related issues.  Alcohol may or may not enter into the picture in altering patients’ decision making abilities and when the decision is made to seek medical attention, the determination as to how soon  (“now or when the game’s over?”) is also a factor.  On the nights that Ali fought, the ED had a manageble flow; as soon as the fight was over it was as though someone had opened the flood gates of Houston’s Ben Taub Emergency Room.

Many health professionals besides me have long thought/felt that sports events have an effect on when patients seek (and delay seeking) emergency medical attention.  Now that this phenomenon has been statistically proven, it appears that it is as important to educate patients in “spectator sports health” as well as sports-medicine health and injury prevention.


Annals of Emergency Medicine, October 2005

Cleveland Clinics Quality Measures, July 17, 2006



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