Sports docs’ weekly blitz: How does one become a sports doc?

Hi CFers!

Dr. Thomas Greenwald here with this week’s blog, following up two excellent articles by my sports medicine partners, Dr. Peter Buck and Dr. Bryan Warme. As you may recall, we are the three orthopedic surgeons who have taken care of ISU athletes for many years. I joined Dr. Buck in 1992 and Dr. Warme coming on board in 2012.

Today I will be answering a question I get from folks fairly frequently after commenting about how much fun it looks like we’re having helping out ISU athletes: "How do I get to have your job?"

My short answer – only half kidding – is "lots and lots of schooling taking lots and lots of tests!"

In fact, it takes AT LEAST 13 years of post-high school education to get to be an Orthopedic Sports Medicine Surgeon. If that doesn’t cause them to lose interest, I explain further…..


Many orthopods were involved in sports in high school and college and some even sustained injuries requiring treatment. This is often an (unfortunate) introduction to the world of sports medicine.That was my situation with an ankle surgery my senior year at Iowa City High School, causing me to miss my basketball season and football and baseball career ending injuries in college.

By the way, here is a brief shout out to fellow ICH alumni with ISU connections: Coach Dan McCarney (’95-06), all-conference center Zach Butler (‘98-02, having the glorious distinction of never having lost to the Hawkeyes during his 5-year ISU career) and DB Nick Linder (’99-03). 

Education, Training and Tests

Four years of undergrad, including getting good grades and a good MCAT score, prepares one for the rigors of four years of medical school. Test taking is a critical skill during these eight years, as the next step – getting an orthopedic surgery residency – is quite competitive (several hundred medical school graduates vying for four or five spots). In residency, the real hard work begins – a five-year time frame of 80+ hour weeks being an "apprentice physician". It’s in residency where one evaluates, treats and operates on thousands of patients, honing their skills.

After residency, sports medicine orthopods are required to do another year of training, called a Fellowship. This allows more learning and perfecting one’s craft. 

Whew! Still want to do orthopedic sports medicine??!?

But that’s not all. You see, all that education and training is just the prerequisite to working as an orthopedic surgeon and allows you the "opportunity" to take more tests. This includes a written Board Certification test and then, two years later, an oral Board Certification test. Both of these are all day affairs that are very intense and stressful and, upon passing, allow you to become a Fellow of the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery. Then one can become sub-specialty certified in Orthopedic Sports Medicine by passing (yet) another all-day test. In order to keep our knowledge and skills up to date, orthopedic surgeons do CME (Continuing Medical Education) followed by a re-certification test every 10 years.

Ok. Enough about testing, right?! 

The real question worth asking me is, "Was all that education and training worth it?" The answer I would give is a resounding "YES". I love my job, and couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I consider it a privilege to be able to try to help people get their lives back after some type of musculoskeletal injury, and to help athletes get back to their preinjury activity level. My job allows me to work alongside great physician partners such as Dr. Buck and Dr. Warme, as well as Dr. Marc Shulman, a sports fellowship trained primary care provider who is the ISU team physician. And we all get to work closely with an incomparably competent and caring ISU athletic training staff (recently recognized the Big 12’s best by their ATC peers). The goal we all share is healthy ISU athletes. 


Dr. Thomas Greenwald