Holding off health costs

Register now

Athletic trainers may have had their roots on the playing field, but the profession has branched out. Large employers such as Toyota, General Motors, Delta Airlines and Boeing have used athletic trainers for years to prevent and treat injuries on the production line and manufacturing floor. While athletic trainers traditionally have worked in an athletic environment, a sprained ankle on an pro athlete is no different than a sprained ankle on a baggage handler at an airport, says Tom Bair, an athletic trainer with ProgressiveHealth Aviation Services in Atlanta.

Bair works primarily with the customer service division of Delta Airlines. The division employs about 6,000 people and includes gate agents, ticket agents and baggage handlers. He also works with employees in the airline's technical operations center, which includes the mechanics who repair and overhaul the aircraft.

"Of all the health care professionals, we really work with the injuries from prevention through to rehabilitation," he says. "We're everything from trying to prevent the injury to acute injury management if an injury occurs, to case management of the injury as it goes through the process with a physician, to rehabilitation of the injury and reconditioning and preparing the individual to return to work and regular activities of daily living."

What an athletic trainer does depends largely on the environment in which they're working. With the baggage handlers at Delta, Bair focuses mainly on injury prevention. "There's nothing ergonomic about an airplane," he says. "If you're a baggage handler, you get up inside the airplane and sling the bags and pack them in." It's a similar situation for aircraft mechanics, he says, who "have to crawl inside the wings, they have to get in the tail section and move big parts in small spaces."

A production line, meanwhile, may see more repetitive-stress injuries, so an athletic trainer may emphasize education and rotation of job tasks and essential job skills. In an office setting, athletic trainers would help employees function ergonomically within the office, ensuring workers' chairs, for example, are the proper height and distance from their computer monitors.

Typical athletic trainer job duties could include injury prevention programs, stretching programs, ergonomic programs, wellness programs, rehabilitation services, work hardening, first response for acute injuries or illnesses, first aid, return-to-work assessments, health risk assessments, pre-employment physicals, case management and functional capacity evaluations.


Cost concerns

Bair acknowledges the return on investment for employers in hiring an athletic trainer is "hard to quantify. There is no cookie cutter. I've seen ranges from 3:1 to 15:1." In Atlanta, a salary for an athletic trainer three to six years out of school could be anywhere from $45,000 to $60,000.

However, traditional injury management techniques are very costly, said Marty Matney, an athletic trainer and program manager with Work-Fit, which runs the industrial athlete program at Boeing. He told attendees during a session at the Care Continuum Alliance Forum in September that, to stay competitive in a global marketplace, American industry must move in the direction of upstream management that focuses on injury prevention and lifestyle modification.

Says Bair: "Making the decision to hire additional staff, you either: A. Increase your revenue or B. Decrease your costs. In an abstract way, you do both when you hire an athletic trainer because you decrease your direct costs by reducing your injury rate and returning your employees to work quicker ... you increase revenue and productivity by decreasing missed work days. That helps the operation run more effectively."


Titles matter

There is confusion sometimes about how an athletic trainer is different from, say, an occupational therapist, physical therapist or personal trainer, says Marjorie Albohm, president of the National Athletic Trainers' Association. Here's a summary of common titles and the type of work they do:

* Athletic trainer. Certified athletic trainers are health care providers who specialize in the prevention, assessment, treatment and rehabilitation of injuries and illnesses. They hold a bachelor's or master's degree with a major in athletic training and are focused on injury prevention, assessment, treatment and rehabilitation.

* Occupational therapist. Occupational therapists hold a master's or doctorate degree from universities accredited by the American Occupational Therapy Association. They help people of all ages participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities. Common occupational therapy interventions include helping children with disabilities to participate fully in school and social situations, helping people recovering from injury to regain skills and providing supports for older adults experiencing physical and cognitive changes.

* Physical therapist. Physical therapists hold a graduate degree - either a master's degree or a clinical doctorate - from an accredited physical therapist program before taking the national licensure exam that allows them to practice. They work in a variety of settings and treat people of all ages. Physical therapists examine, diagnose, and then prevent or treat conditions that limit the body's ability to move and function in daily life.

* Physical trainer. Also known as personal trainers, these are the people who work in gyms and help gym club members become physically fit. The National Academy of Sports Medicine offers a certified personal trainer certification. Becoming a physical or personal trainer does not require post-secondary education.

The work of athletic trainers is regulated at the state level, so "an employer needs to check what the local regulations are," cautions Bair. "What we do in Georgia may be different than what athletic trainers in the state of Mississippi do, or what they do in California."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.