Should People Who Play Sports Pay Higher Medical Insurance Premiums?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


September 11, 2023

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU's Grossman School of Medicine.

If you're watching this and you're anywhere near Seattle, Washington; anywhere near Florida; or anywhere where it might be not oppressively hot outside but encouraging of some people who might want to go out and get a little exercise, you've undoubtedly seen or heard of pickleball.

This took off, I think, out of Bainbridge Island, Washington. It was meant as a gentlemanly game where people didn't exert themselves too much. The joke is you could play it while holding a drink in one hand. It's gotten more popular and more competitive. It's kind of a miniature version of tennis, with a smaller court, a plastic ball, and a wooden paddle. The ball can go back and forth rapidly, but you're always playing doubles and it doesn't take as much energy, exertion, and, if you will, fitness as a game like singles tennis.

Pickleball has a downside. The upside is it's gotten many people outdoors getting some exercise and socializing. That's all to the good. But a recent study suggested that there are about $500 million worth of injuries coming into the healthcare system associated with pickleball. There have been leg sprains, broken bones, people getting hit in the eye, hamstring pulls, and many other problems. I've been told that many of the spectators who show up for pickleball matches are there with a cast or have some kind of a wrap on because they got injured.

Well, many people have argued in the past about what are going to do about healthcare costs. Some suggest if you voluntarily incur healthcare damage, you ought to pay for that yourself and you ought to have a big copay.

If you decide you're going to do cross-country skiing or downhill skiing and you injure yourself, you chose to do it, so you pay. If you're not going to maintain your weight, you're going to smoke, or ride around without a helmet, that's your choice. You ought to pay.

I think the pickleball example is really a good challenge to these views. You obviously want people to go out and get some exercise. Here, we're talking about a population that's a little older and oftentimes doesn't get out there as much as doctors would like to get the exercise that's still important that they need, and yet it does incur injuries and problems.

My suggestion would be to make the game a little safer. Let's try to encourage people to warm up more before they get out there and jump out of the car and engage in their pickleball battles. Goggles might be important to prevent the eye injuries in a game that's played up close. Maybe we want to make sure that people look out for one another out there. If they think they're getting dehydrated or tired, they should say, "Let's sit down."

I'm not willing to put a tax or a copay on the pickleball players of America. I know they choose to do it. It's got an upside and benefits, as many things like skiing and other behaviors that have some risk do, but I think we want to be encouraging, not discouraging, of it.

I don't like a society where anybody who tries to do something that takes risk winds up bearing extra cost for doing that. I understand that that gets people irritated when it gets to dangerous, hyper-risky behavior like smoking and not wearing a motorcycle helmet. I think the way to engage is not to call out the sinner or to try and punish those who are trying to do things that bring them enjoyment, reward, or in some of these cases, physical fitness, but to try to make things safer and try to gradually improve and get rid of the risk side to capture the full benefit side.

I'm not sure I've come up with all the best ways to make pickleball safer, but I think that's where our thinking in healthcare should go. My view is to get out there and play pickleball. If you do pull your hamstring, raise my insurance premium a little bit. I'll help to pay for it. Better you get some enjoyment and some exercise.

I get the downside, but come on, folks, we ought to be, as a community, somewhat supportive of the fun and recreation that our fellow citizens engage in.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at the Grossman School of Medicine. Thanks for watching.

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