Understanding the athletic trainer’s role in the return-to-learn process at national collegiate athletic Association Division II and III institutions

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Journal of Athletic Training


Context: Postconcussion, student-athletes should return to the classroom using a gradual, stepwise process to ensure that symptoms are not exacerbated by cognitive activities. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has mandated that its affiliated institutions develop return-to-learn (RTL) policies to support the return to the classroom. Objective: To investigate athletic trainers’ (ATs’) perceptions of their role in the RTL policy development and implementation at NCAA Division II and III institutions. Design: Qualitative study. Setting: Individual phone interviews. Patients or Other Participants: Fifteen ATs (age = 40 ± 11 years, clinical practice experience = 16 ± 9 years, employment term = 9 ± 9 years) representing NCAA Division II (n = 6) or III (n = 9) institutions. Data Collection and Analysis: Interviews were transcribed verbatim and checked for accuracy by the principal investigator. A 2-member data-analysis team independently coded a portion of the transcripts and then met to discuss the codebook. The codebook was applied to the remaining transcripts, confirmed, and externally reviewed. Results: Five themes emerged: (1) approach, (2) collaborative practice, (3) patient advocacy, (4) institutional autonomy, and (5) barriers. Policies must allow for an individualized, evidence-based approach through facilitated, active communication among members of the RTL team and the student-athlete. Collaborative practice was described as key to successful policy implementation and should include interprofessional collaboration beyond health care providers (eg, educating academicians about the purpose of RTL). The RTL process was triggered by a specific member of the RTL team, usually a medical doctor or the head AT. Participants noted that the purpose of the RTL policy was to advocate for the student-athlete’s successful postconcussion outcomes. Conclusions: For the development and implementation of a successful RTL policy, strong communication and interprofessional practice must extend beyond health care professionals. Members of the health care team must establish a network with academic partners to develop a policy that is appropriate for the institution’s available resources and the needs of its student-athletes.

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