The NHL needs to make its central medical registry more accessible to the doctors on its 30 teams and more difficult for troubled players such as the late Derek Boogaard, who manipulated the system for easier access to drugs, a prominent sports physician said.
Rob Gordon, a Toronto orthopedic surgeon who works with the tennis ATP World Tour, said any doctor associated with the tour can instantly call up a player's medical file to see what medication and treatment he was prescribed elsewhere. In the NHL's system, team doctors only have access to the records of players on their teams, even though they often treat players from visiting teams during the regular season.
Boogaard, who played for the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers from 2005 through 2010, died of an accidental overdose of painkillers and alcohol at the age of 28 on May 13, 2011. His father Len, an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, conducted his own investigation into his son's death. He told the New York Times in a story published Monday that his son Derek received thousands of pills through more than 100 prescriptions from at least 12 team doctors for the Wild and the Rangers. In at least one instance, Boogaard received a prescription from a Wild doctor after he joined the Rangers. He also received prescriptions from team dentists.
The Times story raised questions about the communication between doctors who work for NHL teams, the access to a player's medical records and the communication between team doctors and the NHL's Substance Abuse and Behavioural Health Program. As one former NHL trainer asked: "Is the system allowing that sickness [pain pill addiction] to be facilitated?"
"That should be something the NHL or any league should be looking into," Gordon said. "They should have a system like they do in the ATP. When a doctor who works for the ATP gives out a drug it is logged and any team doctor can see it."
An NHL Players' Association source said Monday the union is considering its options in allowing a treating physician more access to a player's medical records. This will likely be part of the bargaining with the NHL later this summer for a new labour agreement. In the meantime, the union and the league have agreed to tighten the rules on what medication can be dispensed by team trainers and warned the players about the dangers of sharing pills.
The problem, according to Chris Broadhurst, a former athletic therapist for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Phoenix Coyotes, is that despite the NHL's best efforts, players such as Boogaard can use doctor-patient confidentiality rules to slip through the cracks. They also withhold information from their doctors about what medication they are using.
"We all have access to doctors or friends who do, we have money," said one Western Conference player, speaking on condition of anonymity. "So it's not all that hard for someone who's determined to get hold of [painkillers]."
Any medication given to an NHL player by a team doctor must be recorded on the player's medical file. But anything prescribed by a player's family doctor, who may not know all of a player's medical issues if the player does not disclose them, is not required to be entered on the NHL file.
It is also common for players who are with one team for a lengthy period to engage the team doctor as their family physician. Thus Boogaard would have theoretically been able to see a Wild doctor as his family doctor after he joined the Rangers and request that he keep anything between them confidential. The Wild doctor would also not have access to Boogaard's NHL medical file once he went to the Rangers.
"One of the difficult parts is, how do you decipher, either in Canada or the U.S., when somebody is shopping around for prescription meds?" Broadhurst said. "Most [doctors], if you only see a guy every couple months, you assume he's just using it on an as-needed basis, not realizing he's probably shopping out six or seven doctors. If you have a guy who is a substance abuser, he is going to say whatever it takes to get his hit."
Gordon said this is a problem faced by every doctor, not just those who see professional athletes.
"That's why when I do surgery I don't hand out drugs," Gordon said. "Because I know the first thing they're doing is go to their family doctor or go to another family doctor [for medication].
"The only way they get caught is if they go to the same pharmacy with two different doctors' [prescriptions]. The pharmacies have a log and if they see the guy coming back two days later with the same prescription, they phone the doctor."
With a report from Sean Gordon in Montreal