Published in the February 2014 issue of Today’s Hospitalist
AFTER GROWING UP IN UPSTATE NEW YORK where skiing is a way of life, Edward J. Merrens, MD, was thrilled to watch the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid as a teenager. But Dr. Merrens, who is chief medical officer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., and who built the hospitalist program there, will spend most of this month in Sochi, Russia, not as a bystander, but as a physician with the U.S. biathlon team.
Sochi represents Dr. Merrens’ fourth Winter Olympics in that role. He also serves as team physician for the U.S. Olympic Committee. Both are volunteer positions.
How did he make the jump from spectator to Olympic team doctor? He skied competitively as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, although he points out that he was “never a threat for making an Olympic team.” All of his family members are skiers, and they all continue to compete in skiing and running.
After medical school and residency, Dr. Merrens returned to the area and “started going through the process that the U.S. Olympic Committee has for team physicians.” That included traveling, volunteering at training camps, and serving as the doctor for teams at the World University Games and European World Cups. Dr. Merrens became team physician for the U.S. biathletes in 1999, and he joined the team for his first Olympics in 2002 in Salt Lake City.
As for providing medical care to some of the world’s healthiest people: “The hard part about having physicians involved at the elite level is that they try to ‘medicalize’ sports,” he says. “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Dr. Merrens, on the other hand, has been a strong advocate for less physician involvement. “I’ve spoken a lot about reducing testing, not using supplements, and giving athletes education around health maintenance and testing.”
He’s also worked closely with the team’s sport psychologist, Sean McCann, PhD. And he functions somewhat as a primary care source for athletes whose training schedules and competitions take them around the world.
Treating elite athletes is a far cry from the patients he cares for at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. (Although he’s been CMO there since 2012, Dr. Merrens still works 25% of his time as a hospitalist.) Ultimately, he sees his work with the Olympic team as a way to give back.
He has also been able to bring some insights gained through athletics to his hospitalist practice. “I think we over-medicalize a lot of things,” Dr. Merrens says. “From a physician”s point of view, there is a lot we can do for children and adults around diet and exercise that would solve a lot of our health-related ills.”