Chances are, if there’s an injury during an NFL game, you’re going to hear about it from Dr. David Chao. The 51-year-old former San Diego Chargers team doctor has cultivated an impressive following on Twitter, boasting more than 43,000 followers. His success at diagnosing injuries from afar has earned him spots on Sirius XM radio and a regular column at the National Football Post.
While Chao might just seem like a run-of-the-mill expert on sports injuries, his story is hardly that boring. Any cursory Google search could lead you to believe he was the devil incarnate, but many he has worked with over the year swear by him. So just who is this guy? The answer is far more complicated than you may think.
Chao is no stranger to controversy and that makes his new-found Twitter fame hard for some to take. During his years as the Chargers’ doctor, he cultivated relationships with a number of prominent players who back him to this day. On the flip side, he had two alcohol-related driving incidents, was subject to a DEA investigation, was reportedly sued 20 times between 1998-2011 and the NFLPA demanded he step down as a result of repeated negligence.
In 2014, Chao had his license revoked by the California Medical Board, but that sentence was stayed as part of a settlement. He is currently serving a five-year probation term instead. He was accused of “committing gross negligence, repeated negligent acts and acts of dishonesty and corruption.” He is still a practicing orthopedist and is right to quickly to point out that an independent panel of doctors unanimously cleared him of any wrongdoing in the NFLPA investigation.
I talked to Chao for about 40 minutes for this piece. It’s easy to understand why the Chargers kept him around for 17 years and why people close to him stand by him. He’s a nice, engaging, funny guy. He holds degrees from Harvard and Northwestern, is clearly bright, and – against every rule of journalism – I even found myself liking him personally during our interview. He stands by his record and believes he was railroaded.
“There are two things I regret,” Chao said about his time with the Chargers. “The two times we should have won a ring, and that whatever stuff came up in the media I didn’t respond…the Chargers told me not to. I didn’t realize how big a deal it became because I never paid attention. All of those accusations show up on Google page one, all of the exonerations are buried.”
Like him or not, Chao’s past is troubling.
In 2011 an arbitration panel awarded $2.2 million to Kathleen Adams, who alleged that Chao lacerated her femoral artery, vein and nerve during hip replacement surgery. Adams claimed she suffered chronic pain and a limp as a result, and the panel found that Chao was negligent during the 2007 operation. In 2009 former patient Tom Fagan, who sued Chao and other care providers after a botched 2007 knee replacement surgery, reached a multi-million dollar settlement with several health care providers involved in the incident. Fagan eventually had to have his leg amputated.
In 2013, two San Diego-area hospitals barred him from performing surgery on the premises. Fagan’s lawsuit also led to a $1.39 million settlement against Scripps Memorial Hospital. Scripps had the following to say about the move to revoke Chao’s priviledges:
“Following an investigation of Dr. Chao undertaken jointly at Scripps Memorial Hospital, La Jolla and Scripps Mercy Hospital, the Medical Executive Committees at the Hospitals recommended the revocation of Dr. Chao’s medical staff membership and privileges.”
Look, it’s entirely possible that Chao is right and he has indeed been railroaded and all of this is a big misunderstanding that can be explained away. The Daily Dot wrote a glowing profile of Chao back in April which didn’t mention anything about his “colorful” past. In talking to Chao, it’s clear he feels he has been treated unfairly by the media:
“Nobody stood up for me. I’m trying to get out the truth. No one speaks out for doctors, not even the teams or the NFL.”
Chao charts his hits and misses on Twitter when predicting injuries, he has himself at 94 percent. Despite his controversial past, he can provide value to viewers. There is no disputing his expertise in that area, he has been around the NFL long enough to identify injuries when they happen. Yes, he’s had some high-profile misses, but that’s going to happen when diagnosing from afar.
Chao says he aims to be the “medical Mike Pereira,” someone who can tell fans not only what happened, but why. His constant refrain is that he deals with “insider knowledge, not insider information.” The message being that he knows his business, but he’s not getting any leaked information from people inside the league.
“Because I’ve been inside the game, it brings a different perspective,” Chao said. I know how the league works. It’s not a carny trick, I’m experienced. It’s not 100 percent, I miss some. I’m open about that. I am doing this as a hobby, I’m still a practicing orthopedist.”
Chao is a guy who is supremely confident in his abilities and also supremely confident that his past is not something that should bother people:
“I can sleep good at night because I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
When Chao posts information on Twitter concerning an injury, readers should feel confident that he knows what he’s talking about, that much is clear. As for his history, readers can decide for themselves.