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Sudden cardiac death (SCD) in any young person is a devastating event. The value of cardiac pre-participation screening (PPS) in young athletes has been intensely debated in the medical community and public health arena.1 One of the shortcomings of attempts to identify athletes with heart disease is the lack of established risk stratification protocols. Consequently, athletes are offered a ‘blanket approach’, with a considerable number of athlete disqualifications to save the few at high risk of exercise-associated arrhythmias.
This analysis considers the ethical implications of disqualification of athletes with heart disease from competitive sport in the context of available evidence, contemporary medical recommendations and legal structures, as well as emerging genetic diagnostics.
Eligibility recommendations for athletes with heart disease
There is a lack of consensus in eligibility recommendations for athletes with heart disease aimed at medical practitioners. The discrepancies are due to multiple factors including: (1) the lack of evidence base relating to risk stratification of athletes for most conditions predisposing to exercise-related SCD(as a consequence, the recommendations are expert opinion based (level of evidence C)), (2) Cultural differences, and(3) Differences in legal contexts (if physicians are legally liable, disqualification decisions tend to be more conservative as physicians can be held accountable for adverse events).2 In addition, the label of ‘disqualification’ can be tantamount to loss of employment or ‘being fired’ when the athlete receives substantial financial remuneration or has a professional status.
Is medical disqualification ethically justified?
Ethical arguments in favour of medical disqualification
Disqualification of athletes with heart disease from competitive sport as a precautionary measure relies heavily on evidence that disqualification of at-risk athletes improves morbidity and mortality. In the 36th Bethesda conference, the authors state: ‘The increased risk of sudden death associated with intense athletic participation is a controllable risk factor, and the devastating impact of even infrequent sudden deaths in this young population underscores the wisdom of the conservative nature of these recommendations’.3
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