As head team physician and medical director of the New England Patriots, Mark Price, MD, PhD, leads with an empathetic, team-based approach to provide optimal care.
Dr. Price is an orthopaedic surgeon with Mass General Brigham Sports Medicine, where he treats athletes of all abilities, conducts sports medicine research, and serves in a leadership role for the Center for Sports Performance and Research. He’s also a Boston Red Sox team physician. As a captain in the U.S. Navy Reserves, Dr. Price served in combat operations in Afghanistan, where he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.
In this interview, Dr. Price reflects on his relationships with the Patriots players, their unique needs as professional athletes, and how his experience with the team inspires his holistic treatment approach and innovative research off the field.
Price: I lead oversight of the medical team, taking care of all the players, coaches, and staff in the organization. In the big picture, that means we investigate the sorts of things we want to do as an organization to be sure that we're staying on the cutting edge of predicting, treating, and rehabbing injuries.
It also involves being very much in the nitty gritty and knowing for any particular individual what it is that they're dealing with, being able to talk to them about it, seeing how they're doing, determining their timeline for return to play, and having a good sense of how they've progressed since the last time you saw them. So it's really all-inclusive in terms of being able to care for the organization.
Price: One of the things that I try to stress with our care team is that these players, in some cases, are internationally famous. So they have hundreds or thousands or millions of fans, and dozens of friends and family members. But they only have one doctor. I remind everybody not to deprive them of that one doctor. We are here to take care of them.
It’s a lot of fun to see how they've evolved and developed and watch them doing something that they love. To even have that sort of small part in it leaves you with a good feeling.
Price: These guys have been doing something at a high level for an awfully long time. And they know their bodies; they know how they respond. I know the medicine and I know the biology. I give them the best advice based on experience, data, and science. I explain the way forward in terms of the best care.
I emphasize to players that I have the benefit of not only worrying about them week-to-week, but I also get to worry about them year-to-year and what they look like when they're not playing football anymore. I have several patients who are former players. I take pride in the fact that they still come back for care because they know that I had their best interests at heart when they were playing and I understand how their play has impacted them.
When these players come in, I don't know whether or not the person I'm talking to is somebody who's not going make it through training camp, or somebody who's going be a First Ballot Hall of Famer. And so I treat everyone like they're going be Hall of Famers.
Price: As we get into the middle of the season, the hours are piling up, the nagging injuries have remained nagging, and they’re maybe flaring up a little bit more. And so on a game day, it's really just trying to figure out what these players need. Most of what needs to happen to help them play in a game on a Sunday or a Monday has already taken place during the course of the week.
At the beginning of the game, we’re checking in with them and just seeing, “Hey, how are you feeling? Is there anything you need?” Maybe discussing if they need medication. Sometimes guys will have injections, things like that. If they need it because they're struggling with a chronic injury, we discuss it.
During the game is really where we do the majority of our work and it’s like watching several car accidents unfold. These are large people running into each other at very high rates of speed. We are there to evaluate any injury, render appropriate care, and ultimately make a decision on their suitability to return to play. We want to make the best decision, not just for the short term, but for their long-term health.
Sometimes you have to step in and be the voice of reason and not be afraid to be the person out on a limb saying, “No, I don't think you can go back in with this. I think that's a terrible idea.” You have to have the trust with your guys that when you do that, they know you're doing it for the right reasons.
After the game, it's collecting everything and seeing where you are. Some guys will have injured something but it wasn’t a big deal and they played the whole game with it. But afterwards they come and say, “Hey, my finger’s at this really weird angle,” and you say, “Let's get an x-ray.”
We’re making plans for the week ahead to say, “All right, Monday morning it starts all over again. Let's make sure this person who dinged their shoulder gets imaging.” If it's something that looks like it's going to be okay, let's make a plan to see them earlier in the morning so we can get a good sense of what their week of rehab looks like. We spend the rest of the week supervising and making sure that things are moving along, like you hope they will. And if they're not, we decide what needs to be done differently.
Price: Football is more than a job for these players. For these guys, that sore knee can be the difference between getting open on a pass and staying covered. As a result, not only do you have to really pay attention to the physical stuff, but also the mental stuff.
We recognized several years ago that sports psychology was a very important aspect of caring for these men from head to toe. It's not just, “Hey, your knee is okay, get on out there and play.” It’s “Hey, when your knee isn't okay, you're not with your team.” That's going to impact how you view your role in life and things like that. I remind our medical team that, “If I had an injury and it took me out of the operating room for 6 months, I wouldn't feel like a surgeon anymore, right? I'd feel really kind of bereft and think man, what am I doing here?” It's no different for these guys.
These players have been doing their thing since they were very young. It’s naive to not think that's a big, big deal for them. For some, it also may be their first time away from home. It's certainly their first real job and they are thrown right into the deep end, competing with people and playing with people who've been doing it for 10 years at the very highest level. They're not slowing down to make sure you catch up. It’s recognizing all of those things and having the right people in place to help and to see the signs of players struggling before they may notice it themselves.
Nowadays, these guys have had access or exposure to these resources since high school and college. So not only are they used to it, but they're looking for it. When they come in now they're asking, “Hey, who's our psychologist?” Years ago, I would coax players saying, “This is a good thing; it will help you.”
Nutrition is another big piece of the puzzle, along with sleep. We know that these are medication in a sense, in terms of helping these men recover. As much as that train's not slowing down for the new guy, it's not slowing down for the mid-career or the late-career guy either. They have to be ready to practice and go full speed.
One of my roles is to work with an elite nutritionist and sleep specialist who understand the real requirements that these men have to do their jobs. I get to learn a ton, from people who are at the very top of their game.
We help players recover from the miles on the body, so to speak. Some years we have more West Coast trips, which may involve longer overnight flights. We've got to take that into account and understand the impact of all those different things.
Price: It’s fun to see your patients get back to doing what they love to do. In the Patriots organization, it's a little more longitudinal because you've known them for a long time before something like an injury happened. Then a player goes through the recovery process, and when they get back out there again, it's a great day. We'll joke and say, “Oh, that's a medical team touchdown right there!”
It's very similar in the office when a patient has hamstring or shoulder injury and we fix it or rehab it. When they send you pictures of hiking the Appalachian trail, or playing paddle tennis, or whatever they love to do, that’s the stuff that gives you a lot of pride.
Price: The number one thing is it teaches empathy. Empathy is key because when you’re talking to a “weekend warrior” who spent 6 months to get ready for the Iron Man Triathlon Championships, you recognize they have invested countless hours getting to that point. It wasn't just the 6 months of training, or the one race where they qualified. It was the years before that where they were preparing.
If you talk to your patient about their hamstring, knee, or shoulder, without any recognition of all the other stuff that's going on inside, you're going to do a medically sound job and they'll probably be fine. But I don't know that you're going to be able to connect with them in the same way to help.
We take a lot of what we learn in this environment and apply it to the greater public. For example, the way the NFL handled COVID, in terms of contact tracing and genotyping, was remarkable.
As a society we learned so much about COVID due to the NFL’s efforts because they had thousands of people taking tests every day in a very controlled population. I didn't have anything to do with it, but I just remember talking to the kids at the dinner table marveling. The amount of data that the league was able to collect and its impact were tremendous. It gave me a sense of pride being affiliated with it.
Likewise, we learn things that put a bug in your brain thinking, “Oh, maybe there's something more to this.” And then that does spin off into a research project that we do on the outside to say, “I've seen that when we have guys with this kind of body composition, so let's study that a little better in a place where we can gather more patients up.” With that we’re able to learn some things about injury patterns, or treatments that we can then apply to our other patients.
Price: We're so lucky to work in a place where within a phone call or two, you're probably going to have one of the greatest people on the planet at taking care of a problem. And this person has dedicated their life to it. To me, that is one of the really, really great parts of the gig.
For example, I saw a patient in clinic the other day that unfortunately had an odd finding on a chest x-ray. In our Mass General Brigham family, you can make a couple of phone calls and find the exact right doctor. This patient says, “My gosh, I came in and said my shoulder was hurting, and they've now connected me with the world's greatest oncologist to take care of this problem.”