Dr. Hildahl Explains How Athletic Trainer Skills Enhance Diagnostic Expertise

Dr. Hildahl’s high school basketball career prompted him to pursue athletic training in college. He explains how the skills he learned inform his diagnostic expertise.

Dr. Blake Hildahl’s first introduction to orthopedic medicine was as an injured high school basketball player. Rehabilitating with an athletic trainer prompted him to pursue athletic training in college. Most premed students majored in the sciences. But Dr. Hildahl explains how his collegiate experience as an athletic trainer benefits his diagnostic expertise as an upper extremity surgeon.

Diagnostic expertise honed on the field

“I approached medical studies from a unique perspective,” Dr. Hildahl admits. “While the premed students were in the classroom, I studied athletic training and spent a lot of hours on the sidelines and rehabbing patients. There, I had a front-row seat to athlete injuries. I was the first person to reach injured athletes and triage them—without X-ray or all the benefits of a hospital. That experience really honed my physical exam skills and diagnostic expertise.”

Working as an athletic trainer for ESPN

The highlight of Dr. Hildahl’s athletic training was his work at ESPN Wide World of Sports. “I worked with a variety of professional and amateur athletes and taught student athletic trainers,” Dr. Hildahl explains. “At AAU Nationals and events like ESPN cheerleading competitions, I was responsible for a wide variety of athletes. They came down to Orlando to visit Disney and compete on the field. No one expects to get hurt, but injuries happen. It was my job to triage the injured athletes and arrange to get them home safely to an orthopedic surgeon back home.”

A hands-on approach to diagnostics

“Athletic training is very hands-on,” explains Dr. Hildahl. “I didn’t realize how valuable that was until I got into medical school. As an athletic trainer, I was honing diagnostic skills on the field without the benefit of imaging resources. I was triaging and evaluating injuries as they happened, to determine whether an athlete could return to play or needed medical attention.”

Dr. Hildahl explains that signs of injury can be detected through touch. “A lot can be learned from examining and touching an injured limb. As an athletic trainer, all you have is your hands to use to examine a patient and make a quick determination about weather an athlete can go back on the field. After working with high numbers of athletes and seeing an array of injuries, you become adept at identifying injuries with just your hands.”

Diagnostic expertise through imaging

“When I started medical school, I was expecting to learn really great hands-on diagnostic techniques,” Dr. Hildahl remembers. “But I discovered that the volume of medical information presented doesn’t leave you time to see someone sprain an ankle or break a leg on the field. There’s too much to learn. Medical students are taught that a leg is broken not by triaging injury on the field, but by studying an X-ray.

“In my orthopedic residency and now as a surgeon, I talk with my patient and do an examination before I look at the images,” Dr. Hildahl explains. “Thanks to my experience as an athletic trainer, I am very comfortable with hands-on evaluation. I want to do a face-to-face assessment before coming to a conclusion about a treatment plan. I use all of the technology available to me—including imaging resources—before I make a determination, but I think there’s real value in interacting with the patient and doing a hands-on evaluation.”

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  • Blake Hildahl, M.D., ATC

    “No operation should be carried out unless absolutely necessary… nor should a surgeon operate unless he would undergo the same operation himself in similar circumstances.” – John Hunter

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