We now have scientific evidence that sports are more important than life and death.
Or at least more important than a bad cold or a sprained ankle.
Researchers at Children's Hospital in Boston studied emergency room visits at six area hospitals during the Boston Red Sox's playoff run last year and found that when the Sox were playing in important games, visits were down. The higher the Nielsen ratings for the game, the emptier the emergency rooms.
The clear implication here is that the answer to America's healthcare crisis is to have a major sporting event on television every hour of every day. People will put off seeking medical care indefinitely to watch TV. It's win-win for hospitals and insurance companies. Win-win-win if you count TV networks. And undertakers.
The study was published as a letter to the October Annals of Emergency Medicine. Newspapers around the country that have added local color to the story by interviewing emergency room doctors have found the same thing. Yup, the docs all say, same thing happens here.
The connection between popular cultural events and a drop in emergency room visits has been noted before, though this is the first statistical study to show it.
Dr. Wally Ghurabi, director of the emergency department at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center in California, told Healthday.com that the drop represents the reality of modern medicine, when 30 to 40 percent of E.R. visits, by his estimate, are "discretionary," rather than true emergencies. They're for the types of things that could be handled by a family physician.
"Almost uniformly, ER rooms in the country have become a safety net," Ghurabi said, for people without access to a family physician -- including after hours -- or the means to pay the bill.
"We're not talking about gunshot wounds or car accidents," John Brownstein, one of the researchers, told the Bloomberg news service, "but at the level of a really bad cold."
There is no statistical proof yet that being a fan of the Kansas City Royals, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Los Angeles Clippers or Arizona Cardinals actually causes acute illness, but that's probably due to a lack of research, not to mention a lack of fans.
The Boston researchers wrote that during Game 7 of the American League Championship Series last year, when the Red Sox completed their historic comeback against the New York Yankees, and in the clinching Game 4 of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Boston emergency rooms had fewer visitors than normal for those dates.
During Games 3 and 4 of the ALCS, when it looked like the Red Sox were going to get swept by New York, Nielsen ratings were down and E.R. visits were higher than normal.
I faced this decision myself once, though it didn't feel like a decision. One day in 1996 I was watching my alma mater, California, play football at USC with an actual chance to win, something the Bears hadn't done on USC's field in 12 straight tries, dating back to 1970, when I was a 7-year-old just embarking on a career of regular visits to emergency rooms in and around Los Angeles.
A few minutes after kickoff, I began having an allergic reaction to some medicine. I went straight to the E.R.
It never occurred to me -- and hadn't since, until just now -- to wait till after the game. I don't know enough to know if I'd have made it to the end of the game alive, but it didn't feel like it. I think I made the right choice. When I got to the E.R. and reported my symptoms, the nurse barked at me to "Get in here, now" -- ahead of a roomful of waiting patients.
The fact that the emergency room was crowded tells you the sway Cal's sports teams hold in the Bay Area, though to be fair this was across the bay in San Francisco.
But anyway, the important thing in this story -- well, I lived, but after that -- is that the Bears won! They got along fine without me. Now that I think of it, maybe I should have gone back to the emergency room a few times that season. The Bears were 5-0 after that win, then went 1-6 the rest of the way, including a bowl (!) loss to Navy (!).
If you have a good story about forsaking the emergency room because a favorite team was playing, send it to me. Only if it's really good, please. Real emergencies, not bad colds and sprained ankles. And please try to keep it short. I don't want to have to go to the E.R. with acute eyestrain. Not with the Giants clinging to life and playing the Padres again tonight.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Baseball's last week [PERMALINK]
"Nothing beats baseball's final week," reads the headline on some flackery at MLB.com.
I used to think that was true. I still do, as long as you don't count all of the things that do beat baseball's final week, such as a trip to the emergency room.
OK, that's an exaggeration, but the three-division, wild-card system really has dampened the thrills of September. I've written about this before, and I've made my peace with it. I still like to whine a little bit, though.
Baseball's made a choice. The current system keeps more teams in the playoff hunt deeper into the season, and it creates a longer postseason with more chances of big upsets. The price is do-or-die pennant races between the best teams in the league.
It was clearly a good choice from a business standpoint, and once October comes, even I'm happy with it. But I think the choice has been an overall aesthetic failure because of what it's done to September.
The MLB.com article, which is selling a special MLB.TV package for the last week, reviews some of the great final weeks in baseball history. It mentions individual feats like Ted Williams finishing his .406 season, but also reviews the Bobby Thomson and Bucky Dent pennant-winning home runs, the Royals-Angels race in the A.L. West in 1985, that sort of thing.
Then it says, "The final week of the 2004 season was simply mind-numbing. Remember how that final Sunday dawned?"
Well, do you?
I'll give you a hint: The big dramas involved a Minnesota Twins-Cleveland Indians double-header and a Houston Astros game. Still nothing? Me neither. And I was following it closely at the time.
I looked it up. The Twins-Indians double-header decided whether the Twins or the Anaheim Angels would be the second seed in the A.L., meaning which team would play the Boston Red Sox and which would play the New York Yankees. The Twins could "earn" the right to play wild-card Boston with a sweep, but split and had to play Eastern Division champ New York.
The Astros had to beat the Colorado Rockies to avoid a one-game playoff for the wild card with my favorite team, the San Francisco Giants. I hadn't remembered that. My favorite team!
Wild-card races and four teams going for three spots races, like the current Red Sox-Yankees-White Sox-Indians battle in the American League, just don't burn into the memory the way races did before 1995, when you had to win one of two divisions to make the playoffs, or before 1969, when you had to win the league.
There are bigger problems in this world. There are even bigger problems in baseball. But I think I'll miss great September pennant races for the rest of my life.
Previous column: Steroid testing; LSU
- - - - - - - - - - - -