Wednesday 3 October 2018 2:24pm
Adam Letts (Physiotherapist) and Ash Singh on-field assessing Alex Ainley in the game vs Rebels in 2018
When describing his career trajectory, medical alumnus and Pulse Energy Highlanders doctor Ash Singh hardly gets through a sentence without the word “Otago” cropping up.
“There’s no doubt several key people, and the University, pretty much made me what I am today, both as a sports physician and healthcare professional, and as a person.”
One of his earliest interactions with an Otago academic was with Admissions’ Dean Professor David Gerrard.
“He rang me to give me my position and I didn’t know it at the time, but because of his background with sport, he would be a key person throughout my time at uni. He ultimately had a massive influence on where I’ve ended up in sports medicine.”
Ash had completed an undergraduate health science degree at the University of Auckland before heading south to study at Otago’s Dunedin campus between 2005 and 2007. He then did his “clinical years” at Otago’s Wellington campus until 2010.
He has fond memories of being a residential assistant at UniCol, and says that while he “studied hard [he] enjoyed a lot harder.”
“I still reminisce about UniCol and institutions like the Gardies and the Cook, and even Hyde St back in the day – it goes by so quickly and while you enjoy it you don’t always realise what a great experience it was until later in life.”
After graduation, Ash returned to Dunedin to work as a Cardiothoracic Registrar before starting work for the Otago Rugby Football Union.
This experience galvanised his desire to work in sports medicine and, heeding more sage advice from Professor Gerrard, he moved to Australia to work for the Melbourne Rebels.
“It was a massive opportunity I couldn’t pass up and I remember Prof Gerrard saying it would open doors and would be invaluable on my CV – and he couldn’t have been more right.”
Working in Melbourne for five seasons afforded many insights into the realities of sports medicine, and the intriguing processes behind developing players to the point they are able to “push human boundaries.”
“Melbourne is the sporting hub of Australia. It is home to about 18 professional teams who compete in intensely competitive codes like the AFL. Because money is not an issue they have access to technology like hyperbaric chambers, altitude rooms and underwater treadmills that we can only dream of.”
He says having Peter Brukner – whose career highlights include working as a doctor for Liverpool FC and the Australian cricket team – also helped “shape and sharpen the tools.”
Working in the highly professional environment led to a greater appreciation of the need to integrate technology into team medicine, and Ash enjoyed learning more about ultrasounds, platelet enriched plasma and a host of targeted “cutting-edge” treatments in common use with athletes in Australia.
This knowledge helps him manage “emerging issues” in rugby medicine, the biggest of which is “chasing the last five to 10 per cent of an athlete’s performance potential.”
As professional rugby has required players to be bigger, stronger and faster the potential for injury has increased. Ash says this has put the onus on medical and performance staff to manage the athletes’ pre-season and pre-match preparation to unprecedented levels.
He cites the Highlanders’ low injury rate in the 2018 season as proof the medical team had worked with training and coaching staff – including fellow Otago alumnus and Highlanders’ strength and conditioning coach Andrew Beardmore – to expose players to the physical rigours of competition in pre-season training.
Adam Letts (Physiotherapist) and Ash Singh on-field assessing Lima Sopoaga during a game in 2018
Another emerging issue for sports doctors, and “the number one diagnosed injury”, is concussion.
“It’s not because there are more players being concussed, but because we now have the tools for identification and a low threshold for diagnosis. We know what the repercussions are if you miss a diagnosis because subsequent injuries can be very detrimental for mental health and player ability.”
Ash sees community engagement as a way to give back to the sport he loves, and he enjoys public engagement on sports injury prevention, and mentoring students at Otago's School of Physiotherapy in methods for treating spinal trauma.
“I followed the Highlanders when I was first at university, and have done so through their good and bad times. Now I have a dream job working in an amazing environment with great players, and living in Dunedin which is a place I always gravitate back to.
“If you’d have told me things would work out like this when I was studying all those years ago I wouldn’t have believed it.”