How Policy Impacts Health Outcomes: A Look at Youth Concussion Laws

Effective health policy plays a vital role in fostering healthier communities—we’ve seen it countless times throughout history. A case in point is the youth concussion safety laws created back in 2009 after 13-year-old Zackery Lystedt suffered a debilitating brain injury on the football field—an injury he likely would not have sustained had he stayed out of the game following his initial blow to the head.
Zackery’s tragic story prompted his home state of Washington to introduce the "Zackery Lystedt Laws,” known collectively as “return-to-play” laws. This legislation mandated, among other things, that student athletes suspected of having a concussion be immediately removed from play. It also prohibited return to play without written medical consent from a licensed healthcare provider. By 2014, legislatures in all 50 states and the District of Columbia had enacted some form of return-to-play laws.
The Impact of Return-to-Play Legislation
Although there are still gaps that must be addressed, the policies outlined in return-to-play laws have had a positive impact. A recent University of Michigan study on the effect of these laws discovered the following:
Within the scope of the study, treatment for concussion-related injuries ranged from physician office and emergency department visits to specialist care and inpatient admissions. The rates of computed tomography scans were also measured.
Other Public Health Achievements
The apparent success of return-to-play laws is encouraging, but not entirely surprising. After all, each of the 10 major public health achievements of the 21st century identified by the CDC was catalyzed by policy change. Some examples are listed below.
These examples are proof positive that policy and awareness can improve both individual behaviors and health outcomes for entire populations. Leveraging the legal system in a sensible way—via regulatory action or mechanisms like taxation—can help public health practitioners respond effectively to the many health-related challenges facing our country today.
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