University of Leicester eBulletin

Confidentiality under Threat in English Professional Football Clubs

March 2002

No 73    

British Journal of Sports Medicine study

Club culture and intense media and commercial pressures have seriously undermined the ethos of patient confidentiality in English professional football clubs, finds a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

This is despite guidelines issued by the British Olympic Association, the Football Association, and the British Medical Association, which clearly state that the duty of confidentiality of medical staff overrides that of their contractual obligations to their employers.

University of Leicester researchers acting on behalf of the Professional Footballers Association surveyed 58 club doctors, and held face to face interviews with an additional 12 club doctors, 10 club physiotherapists, and 27 current and former players.

They found that there was no commonly observed code of ethics governing the way in which confidential issues were handled. And the amount and type of information about players that club doctors and physiotherapists freely passed on to managers varied enormously.

Physiotherapists were more often guilty of failing to respect patient confidentiality than doctors. But concerns were raised by the ethical behaviour of some of the club doctors. One case involved a doctor threatening to use the information he had about a player's medical record to advance the interests of the club over, and against those, of the player.

In that particular case the player said that although he could not excuse the doctor's behaviour, he thought that he had probably been acting under great pressure from the club chairman.

One club doctor, also a GP, said that unlike general practice, "inside a football club it seems like everybody else thinks they have the right to know what's going on before the player does, and when I have had disagreements with managers, it's usually been around this issue."

A physiotherapist said: "The problem is that I am employed by the football club. I'm employed by the manger and if I withhold information which he thinks he should have, then he would say that I wasn't working for the club or for him."

The authors point out that the pressure to succeed is intense among clubs and is felt particularly acutely by managers, whose position is often insecure and short-lived. Of the 92 clubs in the English Premier League and the Nationwide League, 20 replaced their manager within the first three months of the 2001-2002 season.

"There is no reason to suppose that the problems we have documented are confined either to football or to England," they comment. To enforce medical confidentiality to the same degree as is practised in most other contexts, they say, would require "a shift in football club culture, which may not be easy to achieve."

Contact: Dr Martin Roderick, Centre for Research into Sport and Society, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK Telephone: +44 (0)116 252 5941; Mobile: +44 (0)7970 052 333; HOME: 0116 270 0358 Email: mr29@leicester.ac.uk

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