Originally publish Feb. 14, 2013 in The Aspen Daily News
The medical director for ESPN’s X Games has been the subject of a gross negligence and medical malpractice investigation by the Medical Board of California since July.
Dr. David Chao, an orthopedic surgeon based in San Diego who specializes in sports medicine, has been a member of the X Games medical staff since 1997, ESPN acknowledged in a statement this week. He has served as the chief medical officer at more than 24 ESPN X Games in both the winter and summer, according to his online resume. ESPN could not confirm how many seasons he has served in the position.
Chao was on scene after the snowmobile crash that led to the death of Caleb Moore in last month’s X Games at Buttermilk. Chao also serves as the head team physician for the San Diego Chargers NFL football team.
In July, the California medical board accused Chao of gross negligence on a hip surgery he performed in 2007, negligent acts in three additional surgeries, and failure to maintain accurate medical records. The case will go to a hearing, which hasn’t yet been scheduled, according to a clerk at the state board. If found guilty, Chao faces having his medical license revoked permanently, suspended for up to a year or he could be placed on probation.
An ESPN representative said this week that the company is aware of the state board’s case against Chao and is monitoring the investigation. ESPN declined any further comment on Chao’s situation.
ESPN representatives did not answer questions asking for clarifications about the details of Chao’s job as chief medical officer, what specific protocols are used in responding to accidents or what Chao’s involvement was in responding to Moore’s crash. A photo from the Jan. 24 snowmobile freestyle competition, when Moore crashed and suffered injuries that resulted in his death, shows Chao standing behind a procession that is leading Moore off the course following his crash.
Chao did not return calls seeking comment.
Moore, whose 450-pound snowmobile fell on top of him while he was attempting a back flip, was later placed in an ambulance and transported to Aspen Valley Hospital, where doctors discovered bleeding around his heart. He was airlifted to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, where he developed an unspecified brain complication. Moore, 25, of Krum, Texas, passed away in the hospital on Jan. 31.
ESPN said in a statement that there have been “limited serious injuries” in the X Games’ 18-year history, where thousands of athletes have taken part in extreme competitions. The company, according to its statement, has had a medical team on site at all of the competitions since 1995, which includes a crew of emergency medical technicians, orthopedic surgeons, sports medicine professionals trained for action sports injuries, and security. ESPN refines the team to meet the demands of the events after each X Games, according to the statement.
As a surgeon, being sued can be an occupational hazard, said Nancy Berlinger, a research scholar on health care policy and ethics at The Hastings Center, a nonpartisan institution dedicated to bioethics. Still, the fact that the state board is calling for Chao’s medical license to be revoked is significant, because not all doctors who are sued have such an action taken against them, she said.
“It would appear that for this kind of action to be contemplated, there is a basic question about safety being raised and whether the person would be able to practice in a way that would not harm patients,” Berlinger said. “When you see a pattern of allegations brought against someone because they practice in a less than safe way … it raises alarm bells.”
In fiscal year 2012, the California medical board revoked 18 medical licenses out of 185 court cases that accused physicians of negligence, according to a board report.
Meanwhile, at a press conference before the Super Bowl, NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith called for Chao to be replaced as the Chargers’ team physician due to the state medical board’s investigation. Chao remains employed by the Chargers.
Since 1998, there have been at least 23 charges of medical malpractice or negligence filed against Chao, according to San Diego County court records.
In the past two years, Chao has lost two medical malpractice civil lawsuits, which resulted in $7.4 million in rewards paid to the victims. The cases are part of California court records.
Last year the state board publicly reprimanded Chao, within the medical community, for failing to disclose that he had been convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol in 2007, according to state board records. Chao was ordered to enroll in an ethics program and a course in medical record-keeping, which he currently is fighting in court.
Meanwhile, ESPN announced this week that the snowmobile freestyle event has been removed from the European Winter X Games event next month in Tignes, France. The company said it is conducting a “thorough review” of last month’s X Games in Aspen.