- Kenny Lin, MD, MPH
For primary care practices that care for children, the preparticipation physical exam (PPE) is an annual rite. My residency program usually sets aside two full days in late summer where the residents and attending physicians do nothing but "sports physicals" in order to meet the demand for these exams from prospective high school athletes. Although the utility and effectiveness of this traditional evaluation has long been debated - a 2019 AFP article on Right Care for Children included the PPE in its list of overused interventions - many clinicians also use the time to address non-sport related issues, making the visit "a potential preventive care entry point and an opportunity to provide routine immunizations, screen for other conditions, and provide anticipatory guidance." Last year, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and several sports medical societies published the 5th edition of the Preparticipation Physical Evaluation monograph, which was summarized in the June 1 issue of AFP.
The COVID-19 pandemic closed schools and cancelled youth sports nationwide beginning in early March. As schools are now reopening in virtual, in-person, and hybrid models, some students are also returning to competitive sports. To address the medical needs of these athletes, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) recently released Interim Guidance on the Preparticipation Physical Exam for Athletes "to provide clinicians with a clinical framework to return athletes of all levels to training and competition during the pandemic."
In addition to the physical risks inherent in playing a sport, student athletes now must also be concerned about minimizing their risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2 where maintaining physical distancing is not possible. The AMSSM notes that unlike professional teams, high school and most college teams will not have the resources to perform testing, contact training, and quarantine. It advises discussing COVID-19 risks in detail with the patient and family at the time of the PPE, and considering factors "such as the disease burden in the community, the overall health of the athlete, the living environment, [and] each athlete's network of friends and family members who have have comorbid conditions" in the decision to play.
Athletes who have apparently recovered from COVID-19 "may have silent clinical pathology in any organ, including the heart," and consequently "should be evaluated in their medical home prior to resuming physical activity and organized sports." Table 2 in the guidance document (p. 27) outlines the recommended cardiopulmonary evaluation in athletes with prior COVID-19 infection, depending on the specific clinical scenario.
The AMSSM also provides guidance on specific conditions that may pose an increased risk for severe COVID-19, including pregnancy, diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and severe obesity. Although athletes with sickle cell trait are not at higher risk for adverse outcomes in general, they may have an increased risk of hypercoagulability complications for several months after recovery.