Dr. Philip Veliz is an assistant research professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing’s Applied Biostatistics Laboratory and is associate director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research & Policy Center. His research primarily involves examining large-scale secondary data sets to assess adolescent substance use, health, and participation in organized sports. As a data analyst, Dr. Veliz has published extensively using data sets like Monitoring the Future, Youth Risk Behavior Survey, and the Office of Civil Rights Data Collection, and continues to work with new and existing data sources that focus on substance use and health. He also currently sits on the Michigan Concussion Center’s Faculty Council.
We sat down with Dr. Veliz to discuss his background, his research, and why he is excited to become a member of the Michigan Concussion Center.
Michigan Concussion Center: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became interested in studying organized sports and concussions.
Dr. Philip Veliz: I am an applied statistician and I study large-scale secondary data that is given to the United States population with a focus on sports and sports injuries. I became interested in this topic while working on my PhD in sociology; for my dissertation, I tried to understand if sports participation was good for adolescents. Roughly 75 percent of the US population has participated in some competitive sport during their life, so my big, overall question was, “If you participate in sports, are you going to have a better health outcome?”
In doing my research, I became interested in learning if concussions were problematic for adolescents, and I asked myself if this was something I could analyze with secondary data. However, I couldn’t find any national estimates on concussions from adolescents in the data I was looking at. So I was able to work on getting a question added to a national survey with respect to concussions, and what I discovered is that one out of five adolescents reported having a concussion by the time they were in high school. My research also showed that participating in sports is one of the strongest predictors of sustaining this type of injury.
MCC: From the data you looked at, what were some of those health problems you saw in adolescents?
PV: Right now we find some strong correlations between someone who suffered a concussion and substance abuse, particularly binge drinking, tobacco, and marijuana use, even when taking sensation-seeking (thrill-seeking) into account. However, we cannot say for certain that concussion is causing teens to use these substances. For instance, if someone is having a hard time concentrating after suffering a concussion, that individual might move towards stimulants to help concentrate better in the classroom. In other instances, people may be self-medicating with alcohol or marijuana because they are trying to deal with the injury in the short term. There is also the reverse, that if you’re more likely to binge drink, the more likely you are to get injured. We haven’t disentangled the causal mechanisms, but it’s not a far stretch to think that someone might be self-medicating with substances to try and get a sense of normalcy back following a concussion.
MCC: What other research have you done on concussion?
PV: As I mentioned before, one of the first studies I did was this national survey of adolescents, and what we found was that one out of five kids reported having a concussion during their lifetime. Additionally, we found, in association with that, the kids who reported concussions were playing sports, particularly contact sports. So the data showed the odds of someone reporting a concussion in their lifetime increased substantially if they participated in a contact sport.
The other study we completed was to look at concussion rate by each sport, and what we found was that football, ice hockey, lacrosse, and wrestling (high-contact sports) were the ones with the highest prevalence of adolescents saying they had a concussion. One in four kids indicated they sustained a concussion playing those sports, so those are the sports you want to monitor and make parents aware of the risks.
MCC: What can we learn by using these massive data sets when looking at concussions?
PV: With respect to these large nationally representative datasets, we can learn how many people in the population suffer from these types of injuries and can pinpoint if there are specific subgroups who are at greater risk for these injuries. This can help targeted interventions for specific subgroups who may suffer more severe consequences from these types of injuries.
MCC: What do you see as the next level barrier for your work in concussion?
PV: One of the biggest barriers is how difficult it is to get the concussion histories of older adults. It’s hard to find, if it even exists at a national level. I think it’s one of those things we have to start considering, given there is such a large population of adolescents who are being concussed. This is going to have long-term implications as they start to age. This isn’t a new phenomenon; it’s been going on for years. So there is an aging population that we can look at now, but we just don’t have that information to kind of do some of the easy correlational studies to help inform prevention strategies.
MCC: What excites you about being a member of the Michigan Concussion Center and serving on its Faculty Council?
PV: I get to communicate with people who are doing much different work than what I’m doing. As a data analyst, I come in asking the broad questions of “Have you ever had a concussion?” The clinical people I get to work with can give me a background on what the answers mean and walk me through the difficulty of measuring a concussion because it’s not simply just asking someone if they had a concussion. They can be difficult to diagnose based on the severity. So those are some of the things I like to listen in on, and it allows me to think of better ways to begin measuring what a concussion is so when I include questions on surveys, I get better information. I enjoy getting some pushback from members who are doing clinical work.
What I like about serving on the Faculty Council is the opportunity to give feedback on some of the exciting projects the center is working on. I can give advice on which direction we could go for data collection to make it more representative of the populations we are trying to assess.