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Concussion Watch: The Eyes on the Sides

football concussions baltuch
Penn Medicine’s Gordon Baltuch, MD, PhD, is a professor of Neurosurgery and director of the Penn Center for Functional and Restorative Neurosurgery.  Baltuch spends most of his days performing and teaching others to perform delicate brain procedures like Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) and MR-guided Focused Ultrasound (MRgFUS). So when the Philadelphia Eagles took on the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game at Lincoln Financial Field this month, some were surprised to see Baltuch standing on the field alongside the coaches and players.

Baltuch is one of several Penn Medicine physicians who serve as Unaffiliated Neurotrauma Consultants (UNC) for the National Football League (NFL). The roles were created as part of the NFL’s recent revisions of its concussion protocol.

I spoke with Baltuch about his duties serving as an UNC for the NFL, what it’s like spending Sundays on the field at the Linc, and his thoughts on football and the impact the game has on player’s brains.

Q: What do Unaffiliated Neurotrauma Consultants do?

A: Myself and several others from Penn Medicine have been serving as UNCs for about five years. The NFL wanted to have unaffiliated consultants at the games monitoring for concussions. So that’s why I was at the NFC championship game; to be a second set of eyes, looking out for concussions. Our group only covers home games at the Linc. Physicians from other institutions cover games in other cities.

Q: Why did you decide to take on this role?

A: Football has never really been a safe game to play, but we’re there to help make it a little safer. We can’t prevent players from being injured but we are there to evaluate the players and keep them from going back into the game if they are concussed so they don’t sustain greater injuries. The referees can only see so much on the field, so it’s great that we have spotters watching from the booths, and slow motion replays and UNCs to catch anything the refs might miss. I also think our presence at the games is bringing awareness to the issue; that we need to pay more attention to concussions when they occur.

gordon baltuch nfl

Check out Baltuch (red hat) on the sidelines behind Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen!

Q: Do you determine whether a player should return to the game if he sustains a concussion?

A: Yes and no. If someone gets a concussion, the decision is with the team physician and there are strict guidelines and a specific review process that the physician has to follow. I co-sign a form with the team physician to verify that the proper concussion evaluation has been completed.

Q: Is it fun or exciting being on the sidelines at the games?

A: Sitting in the stands watching the game is pretty fun and relaxing. But when you’re on the field, you really have to concentrate on what’s going on. We’ve had some games where there were no concussions and I didn’t have to evaluate anyone. You might think I didn’t have do anything that day but we’re like the lifeguards of the game, constantly watching to minimize the risk of serious or long-term injury. You have to stay focused. One second of diverting your attention to something else and you could miss an injury that could really cost a player in the long run. So it’s more hard work than fun, but I enjoy my role.

Q: Do you think the NFL is doing enough to protect players from the long term effects football can have on the brain?

A: Football is an aggressive, collision sport. Even aside from the brain injuries, guys are getting their knees, legs, and arms all busted up. But you have an entire country that rallies around these Sundays; people love watching these games. So, I honestly don’t know what the solution is. These are really big questions that I don’t have the answers to. But I serve in this role because I want to be part of the conversation of how we can change the game to make it safer in the future.

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