For the past decade, physicians from National Basketball Association (NBA) teams have had access to mandatory stress echocardiograms for all of the players on their team. The information was valuable and unprecedented in U.S. professional sports. No other leagues require a cardiac program for their athletes.
Still, until three years ago, the teams did not all have access to each others’ data. With players changing teams so frequently, it was hard for physicians to accurately assess their cardiac profiles. The limited information also made it difficult to detect any league-wide trends.
In 2013, though, the NBA and Columbia University began a collaboration in which all of the NBA’s echocardiograms were assessed by David J. Engel, MD, a cardiologist at Columbia. Engel shares his data with the NBA. He also published a study this year in JAMA Cardiology that examined echocardiograms performed on 526 athletes during the 2013 and 2014 preseason and at the 2014 NBA draft combine.
“We were collecting all of this data, but we didn’t really still know what our normal parameters for a typical athlete is,” Engel told Cardiovascular Business. “Is this heart size too big or is normal for someone who’s 7-foot-1 and 280 pounds? That wasn’t really known. There was no frame of reference until we collected this data and presented it in total.”
Engel’s analysis provides team physicians and other cardiologists with data based on an athletes’ height and body surface area. Thus, they can make more informed decisions and evaluations.
Previously, most of the data on athletes’ hearts came from Italy, where the government mandates cardiovascular screening and testing for elite athletes. The U.S. has no such program.
Engel noted that athletes in the U.S. and Italy are different sizes, and the countries have different sports. For instance, soccer is the main sport in Italy, while basketball and football are popular in the U.S.
As of now, no other U.S. sports league plans on following the NBA’s lead and requiring mandatory annual stress echocardiograms. Still, the program could serve as a model in the future.
“We’ve already gotten a lot of very positive feedback not only from team physicians in the NBA but other sports medicine doctors around the country,” Engel said.