Grad Student’s Concussion Assessment Innovation Adopted Universitywide

October 11, 2022
A soccer player, kicking a ball, with circles floating around his head

The process for evaluating student-athletes who may have suffered concussions has become faster and better, thanks to the work of a UVA student. (Illustration by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

A University of Virginia graduate student has devised a way to streamline student-athletes’ concussion testing so efficiently that it has been adopted by UVA Athletics and soon will be offered as a tool to local high schools.

The innovation has trimmed the typical concussion assessment to as little as five minutes, compared to the previous 20 minutes. To do that, doctoral student Cat Donahue converted paper documents to digital records and created a digital assessment tool to speed up not only the initial, or baseline, concussion assessment, but also the assessment of an injured athlete.

“Everything was stored in a secure location, but it was all on paper,” Donahue said. “Being able to digitize all that allowed us an opportunity to do research more efficiently. Once it was all in a central location, that was the point where I wanted to create a way for future data to be added automatically.”

Just about all local student-athletes, both at UVA and in local high schools, must participate in time-consuming preseason concussion assessments. Later, if an athlete is injured, athletic trainers or doctors can see how the athlete performs on the same assessment compared to the preseason score. That helps determine whether an athlete suffered a concussion, and when a concussed athlete can safely return to play.

A team physician attends to a supine football player on the field
Cat Donahue, who is pursuing a doctorate in kinesiology, innovated the way the University keeps and shares concussion-assessment records for student-athletes. (University Athletics photo)

Since 2015, the UVA Athletics training staff and student-athletes have used a comprehensive assessment developed by Jake Resch, a certified athletic trainer and an associate professor of kinesiology in UVA’s School of Education and Human Development. The assessments include a health history, balance, mood, neurocognitive and visual tests. But it was Donahue’s technological advancement that has changed the way UVA student-athletes are cared for before and after a concussion.

Donahue, who earned her master’s degree in athletic training at UVA, returned to the University’s kinesiology program to pursue a doctorate in 2019. Joining Resch’s lab, she spent hours of her first year of study building a database by manually entering assessment data from paper forms. Donahue spent much of her second year designing digital versions of four assessments that are administered by athletic trainers at the University.

Her system relies on a variety of QR codes for different testing, including assessments before a season, after an injury and during recovery. Because the assessments are digital, notifications between athletic trainers, their colleagues and student-athletes are immediate.

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“So even if a team physician wasn’t traveling with that team at the time, they’re still aware the injury occurred,” Donahue said. “Because concussion is such a multidisciplinary approach, this system allows all the people who work with that athlete to be on the same page, right at the same time.”

Because Donahue’s digital tool shaved 13 to 15 minutes off each assessment, it is now possible to conduct a large number of assessments in a relatively short time. That would benefit local high schools, which must manage the process for hundreds of student-athletes.

In partnership with nurses and athletic trainers in UVA Orthopedics, Resch and Donahue have started to administer baseline tests to up to 20 high-school athletes per hour during after-school hours. While this pilot was in partnership with athletic directors and coaches from two small area private schools, Resch aims to open the program to all interested area high school athletes next year.

“Cat’s innovation will allow for a more consistent and streamlined approach to concussion in collegiate and high school athletes alike, while also helping to advance what we know about the injury,” Resch said.

Media Contact

Audrey Breen

Senior Writer and Research Communications Strategist School of Education and Human Development