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Interview with Professor Ernest Schilders

17 May 2016

Professor Ernest Schilders

Professor Ernest Schilders is an internationally recognised and leading expert in the diagnosis and treatment of adductor and hip problems in athletes. After training as an orthopedic surgeon in Belgium and the United States, his professional career started at the University Hospital in Antwerp. In 1999 he took up a post as Consultant Orthopedic Surgeon in Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS. Since 2010, he works in the Wellington Hospital and the Fortius Clinic, FIFA’s medical Centre of Excellence, both in London.

He has successfully treated players from the majority of Premiership and Championship football clubs, as well as top athletes in other sports disciplines.

He pioneered new surgical and rehab techniques helping athletes to make a faster and more consistent return to their sport. Professor Schilders is also one of the founding members of the Faculty of Sports and Exercise Medicine UK and has been Visiting Professor in Sports Medicine at Leeds Metropolitan University since 2008.

Recently, he was appointed Full Professor in Orthopedic Sports Medicine in Leeds Beckett University. He runs a large study for FIFA on acute groin injuries in football using a unique cloud based data collection system.

We met Professor Ernest Schilders recently at the Wellington Hospital in North London.

What has drawn you to the medical field and more specifically to sports medicine?
I come from a sporting background: I played football and took part in athletics. I was fortunate to spend my orthopedic training in Antwerp with Professor Marc Martens, an internationally renowned sports surgeon. From the start, I was interested in sports medicine and gradually narrowed down my research, focusing on hip arthroscopy and groin injuries in sports.

You were recently praised in a Swiss newspaper as the surgeon of a famous Swiss ice hockey goalie. Which other well-known athletes have you treated?

Patient confidentiality is rigorously kept here in the UK. For that reason you can’t talk about athletes unless their case is in the public domain. Steven Gerrard is the most famous one; he very kindly referred to me in his recent autobiography My Story: “ Schilders was a fine surgeon, from Belgium, whom the club had relied on for years as our hip and groin specialist”.

Other stars are Michael Owen and  Nicklas Bendtner, who at the time  was playing for Juventus. I have treated players from the majority of the Premiership and Championship teams, but I also see footballers from the Spanish, Italian, Swiss, Rumanian, Danish, Belgian, German and Russian leagues. Well known clubs such as FC Barcelona, Juventus, Lazio, Zenit FC, CSKA Moscow, Steau Bucharest and Schalke 04 have called upon my services.  I have also treated several top rugby stars who play in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France. Cricketers are on my list as well, even players from the Indian Premier League come over to be treated.

Have you always wanted to work with athletes? Why?

Working with high level athletes requires a different approach because of the high demands, and time pressures and that is what appeals to me. Over time, I have developed less invasive surgical techniques and as a result the athletes’ recovery time has been significantly reduced, from around 3 months to 4 weeks or less.

Are you practicing sports yourself?

Yes, my favourite sports are running and cycling.

What was the added value of your experience in the United States?

In the US I learned that if you want to combine clinical work with research you need time to think. My US experience also taught me the importance of data collection. When I started my practice in the UK, I made sure data were collected from day one. As a result, my team takes evidence based clinical decisions. Digital outcome scoring of our results has been part of our practice for 10 years now.

What made you decide to move and pursue a career in London?

While I was working in Leeds, the CEO of the largest private hospital in the UK invited me to come and work in London, mainly because of my niche specialty in groin injuries in sports and hip arthroscopy. Later, I was asked to join the Fortius clinic, the leading sports medicine clinic in the country and also FIFA Medical Centre of Excellence. I currently spend half of the week in London and half in Yorkshire.

Having moved to London, what were your first impressions?

London is a city that has it all. The contrast with Yorkshire was immense. London offers culture and excellent restaurants. And then there are the colleagues with a ‘can do’ mentality. However, I do enjoy the mix of the London buzz and the fresh air and stunning nature of the Yorkshire Dales countryside.

Which 5 words would you say best describe the UK? And Belgium?

Initially, you miss all the good things Belgium offers and you can only see the negatives in the UK. After having lived here for 16 years, I think I now have a more balanced view.

To describe the UK I would quote ‘entrepreneurship’, ‘rules and regulations’ and ‘career opportunities’.

For me, Belgium is ‘easy going’, has great quality products and taste and a better sense of humour.

Was it easy to "make your mark" and be integrated by your British colleagues?

A sports medicine radiologist with a keen interest in groin injuries in sports convinced me to come to the UK in 1999. I was able to develop my expertise very rapidly supplemented with research projects.

Integration, on the other hand, took time because I had to adapt to working in the British two tier healthcare system. I was confronted with a system that was not as patient friendly as in Belgium and where patients often faced long waiting times for appointments and surgery.

Last year, F.C. Chelsea’s first-team doctor was criticised for coming on the pitch and treating a (Belgian) player. How easy or hard is it to impose medical decisions facing coaches and players who have a certain reputation?

The problem is often that not only managers get involved, but also agents, etc.

Club doctors are usually under enormous pressure from their club too. It is important not to negotiate treatments and to remain in control from start to finish. It is vital that medical management is not influenced by non-medical reasons.

What advice do you have for someone wishing to take up sports medicine?

Take your time to be trained by the best people and if you aspire to become an expert, pick a topic in your field to develop that expertise and make sure you collect your data. Be savvy, find out how you can improve the quality of work, engage with other disciplines which might be interested in the same topic e.g. orthopedics and rheumatology or osteopathy. My approach has benefited enormously from the input of other disciplines. Don’t be afraid to travel and spend time abroad.

Are you in contact with other Belgian expats in the UK?

Yes, and we usually have similar ambitions and impressions. And we all seem to be happy and proud of each other’s achievements.

Do you often travel to Belgium? For private or professional reasons?

I regularly travel to Belgium for both reasons. Professionally, I often speak at conferences. There are established relationships with Belgian universities. Recently, two Belgian orthopedic surgeons spent time with me to improve their expertise in groin injuries in sports and hip arthroscopy. I also like to catch up with friends and family, which I don’t manage to do often enough.

Can you envisage returning to and settling in Belgium at some stage?

If I ever stop working…. the South of France sounds very appealing.  Some sunshine would be more than welcome...