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Baseline concussion testing gains momentum

Wide support in community for pilot project

A proposal to establish a brain injury baseline testing program in Whistler has been well received in the community, according to helmet and brain injury treatment advocate Richard Kinar.

It is also drawing support from across Canada.

"Right now we're looking at liaising with school board officials and the parents, and a physiotherapist in town has taken a keen interest in baseline testing and the other components that go along with brain injury and concussion management," said Kinar. "Doctors are showing an interest - not just in Whistler, but across Canada.

"And it's not just about baseline testing, because on its own that would be a failure... it has to be about managing and treating people with injuries as well."

Baseline testing is already in place for professional athletes in a wide range of sports. Basically, a baseline test is a series of electronic tests that measure memory, attention and concentration, problem solving and mental processing speeds. This determines an athletes' "normal" level of mental functioning before a brain injury occurs.

Following a head injury an athlete will experience a drop in functioning that the test will reveal. Further testing also makes it possible for doctors and care providers to measure an athletes' recovery, and ensure that they are healed before returning to sport and risking another concussion.

Whistler would be the first community in Canada to baseline test all of its school-age children over 10.

Cathy Jewett, the chair of the Sea to Sky School District's Parent Advisory Committee (DPAC) said she's had some preliminary discussions and plans to contact local PACs and principals in the future to discuss the idea and build more support.

"The school board is not involved at this point but I can say that local parents are very interested and (Kinar) has had a lot of positive feedback from the community," she said.

The concept was originally suggested to Kinar by Steve Legge from the Whistler Minor Hockey Association, who knew of Kinar's involvement in helmet and brain injury issues. Kinar agreed to look at the issue of baseline testing and head injury management provided that the project was expanded to include the entire community with the approval of other stakeholders.

Once all stakeholders, including governments, are on board the next step would be to figure out a plan and budget for baseline testing.

Not all heads are the same and the latest research shows that head injuries, no matter how minor at the time can have serious and long-term consequences.

While the best solution is to avoid head injuries altogether, Kinar - a former freestyle skier himself - knows that's probably not going to happen, especially in Whistler, which is arguably the action sports capital of Canada. Kids in Whistler, he said, are often active in several sports at any given time that carry a high risk of sustaining a head injury.

Accepting that accidents are going to happen, Kinar has been working for more than seven years to lobby for national helmet standards for all sports (only hockey and cycling are currently covered) and for the mandatory use of helmets where it's appropriate.

But he would like to see Whistler take the next big step.

With the encouragement of stakeholder groups such as the Whistler Minor Hockey Association, he said a pilot baseline testing program for all of Whistler's youth would make it easier to test for evidence of a concussion or brain injury - and to ensure that a person is fully recovered before they were allowed back on their skis, snowboards, bikes, skates, skateboards and other sporting equipment. Repetitive head injuries, said Kinar, such as the one suffered by NHL Sidney Crosby; increase the risk and effects of a concussion exponentially.

Kinar's first priority is to get a broad level of support from stakeholders in the community, at which point he will take the project to governments and agencies to request funding. While there will be a cost involved, treating head injuries is expensive and serious cases can cost hundreds of thousands, if not million, to treat. It's been estimated that the cost of head injuries and other preventable injuries is $20 billion a year. The direct cost to B.C. is roughly $3 billion.

Kinar points out that Canada ranks 27th out of 29 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development when it comes to preventable childhood injuries.

Before the election was called, there was $5 million in the federal budget with the goal of bringing Canada up to 22nd on the list in the next two years.