Injuries are part of sport, but has the cost become too great for our kids?

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

This winter sporting season, like the last, ended with my son on the sidelines after another season-ending injury.

A broken shoulder suffered on the football field during a combined schools' gala day was the culprit. The previous year, it was a fractured collarbone suffered at training that brought his rugby league season to an early end.

That injury, diagnosed following an X-ray at the local emergency department two days later, resulted in a six-week stint in a sling, several follow up X-rays, consultations with an orthopaedic surgeon and visits to a physiotherapist.

I wish that had been his only football-related trip to hospital emergency that season but it wasn't.

Another involved him receiving stitches the emergency ward's resuscitation bay (due to no available theatres) while he was sedated with ketamine, a few days off school to recover and a follow-up appointment with a GP.

It was during our experience this year that I really started to think about the cost of sporting injuries on the health system, society and our family.

At a time when the NSW state government is offering parents twice-yearly inducements in the form of Active Kids rebates totalling $200 in exchange for enrolling a child in sport, one wonders if the cost of injuries is overtaking the benefits of playing sport.

My son's broken shoulder has so far resulted in a seven-hour trip to the local emergency room and associated care provided by doctors and nurses, an X-ray, a consultation with an orthopaedic surgeon, who in turn consulted a senior orthopaedic surgeon, a follow-up emergency room presentation at a children's hospital where a second X-ray was performed and a further series of orthopaedic surgery consultations, before a decision was made to operate on his badly broken upper humerus bone.

The resulting surgery, to manipulate the broken bone into place and insert wires inside his arm, was performed late the following night, meaning a theatre had to be kept open after-hours and staff paid overtime, before he returned to the surgical ward to recover.

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Since then, there have been four follow-up consultations, more surgery, several X-rays, physiotherapy consults and more, all adding up to a mind-boggling cost to the hospital system.

And this is just one injury for one child.

The day of our son's accident, half a dozen boys playing in the same gala day were transported to hospital, some by ambulance, and staff at both hospitals painted a picture of the sheer volume of sporting-related injuries being treated in our hospitals.

A final report on a 10-year review of injury-related hospitalisations of children in Australia released in May 2017 found sport was the most commonly specified activity resulting in hospitalisation of children aged 16 and under.

The national review was commissioned by the Day of Difference Foundation and conducted by Macquarie University, University of Sydney and Australian Catholic University researchers who analysed hospital data for the decade from July 1, 2002, to June 30, 2012.

They found there were 686,409 injury-related hospitalisations of children during the 10-year period and sporting activities were the main culprit, accounting for 19 per cent of all injuries.

"Sporting activities were the most common type of activities being performed at the time of the injury for children," the report said.

"The six most common sports where injuries occurred were team ball, bat and stick sports, during individual water sports or equestrian activities, and during wheeled motor and non-motor sports.

"Fractures (41.9 per cent), open wounds (16 per cent) and injuries to internal organs (5.5 per cent) were the three most common principal nature of injuries for children."

The report said the total cost of those hospital admissions was $2.1 billion – or $3119 per child – a figure which its authors said was likely to be underestimated due to some records not being available.

Fractures were the costliest injuries to treat ($942 million), followed by open wounds ($252 million) and injuries to internal organs ($237 million).

The report said Australia was "a sporting nation and participation in physical activity is encouraged for health and well-being".

"In Australia, an estimated 1.7 million children aged 5-14 years participate in organised sporting activities outside of school hours each year.

"While participating in sport is a popular pastime, it can result in unintended injury."

The report's authors said "prevention strategy" was therefore important.

"Skills training, pre-game warm-up and stretching, use of protective equipment, such as helmets, mouthguards and protective padding, have all been advocated during contact-based team ball and bat sports," the report said.

And the cost of sporting injuries did not end at hospital. The report said childhood injuries resulted in many other incurred costs outside those examined in the review, with parental earnings, societal costs and follow up treatment by GPs and allied health professionals adding to the burden.

And according to the report, an injured child often experienced ongoing limitations related to their physical abilities, chronic pain and psychological issues.

Certainly, in the case of our son's recent injury, the fact I am self-employed resulted in loss of income while my husband took two days' carer's leave from his job to be by our son's side during surgery, placing a burden on his employer. Then there were the associated costs such as travel to and from the hospital, carparking, meals and the time required to tend to our injured son.

He also missed several weeks of school, including assessment tasks that could not be completed.

Nine weeks on from his injury, our son is still on the road to recovery and while he has vowed to be back next season, better than ever, I find myself counting the costs and wondering if it is simply too big a price to pay for playing sport.