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Good sport in charge

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust
Published online: 8 July 2013

Dr David Hughes, the new chief medical officer for the Australian Institute of Sport, has had a lot to deal with since his appointment late last year, but his main aim is to keep people moving.

Dr David Hughes is a man on a mission. But it might not be the one you think it is.

Dr Hughes is the chief medical officer of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). He also happens to be the team doctor for the Australian Opals women’s national basketball squad.

He is the guardian of basketball star Lauren Jackson’s hamstrings.

But ask Dr Hughes about life as a sports physician and he will tell you about the satisfaction he gets from the side of the job the public rarely sees.

As a sports physician in private practice for 20 years before his AIS appointment in last December, Dr Hughes is keen to point out that there is more to his profession than tending to elite athletes.

In fact, he says, the role of sports physician is far more important than whether or not a professional footballer recovers quickly from a knee reconstruction.

“By far the majority of patients we see are ordinary people who need help in removing barriers to their physical activities”, he said. “Only about 5%–10% of our practices would involve elite athletes.

“The major single cause of chronic disease in the Western world is a lack of exercise; obesity is just an [obvious] example, but even for mental illnesses like severe depression exercise can be very beneficial.

“Being a sports physician is a very rewarding way to make a living”, Dr Hughes said. “We practise preventive medicine every day. I’ve never regretted my career choice.”

Lately, Dr Hughes has found himself talking a lot about supplements and peptides as the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) inquiry continues to probe professional rugby league and Australian rules.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there”, Dr Hughes told the MJA.

“Sport at the elite level is an intense environment and at the top end there is a mix of celebrity and money which can drive some unusual behaviour.

“The thing with supplements is there is no evidence that they do anything beneficial and there is no safety data. Many can contain substances which can cause an athlete to fail a doping test.

“There is evidence from overseas that some supplements can have contamination rates of more than 15% with ingredients that are not listed.

“The way they are manufactured is not consistent or rigorous”, he said.

Dr Hughes pointed out that the average sports participant did not need supplements of any sort.

“Generally, these things are a victory of marketing over science”, he said.

If the ASADA investigation is bringing a lot to the surface about the running of professional sports clubs, Dr Hughes was quick to point out the positives in the revelations.

“What it has highlighted so far is the lack of governance at some clubs”, he told the MJA.

“It’s a great opportunity to reform a lot of those governance issues and you will see a lot of national sporting organisations looking to improve.”

  • Cate Swannell


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