March 4, 2024

Taking care of Special Olympics athletes

Kaiser Permanente physicians and medical students provide medical exams for athletes.

Before participating in sporting events hosted by Special Olympics Southern California, athletes are required to receive medical screenings to ensure they can safely compete. For some, this requirement is a barrier to participating, as systemic inequities make it challenging for people with intellectual disabilities to access care.

At Kaiser Permanente, we are proud to partner with Special Olympics Southern California to provide physical exams to Special Olympics athletes through MedFest.

Supporting athletes on and off the field

Dustin Plunkett, a Special Olympics athlete, hadn’t been to a dentist in years after a bad experience as a teenager. His coach noticed Plunkett’s cheeks were swollen and insisted he receive a health screening, where he received a shocking diagnosis: gum cancer. Without his Special Olympics coach and the care support team, Plunkett would have gone undiagnosed and untreated.

As a person with an intellectual disability, Plunkett’s care experience isn’t unique. That’s one reason Kaiser Permanente provides physical exams through Special Olympics Southern California’s health screening program: to give people with intellectual disabilities positive and inclusive care experiences.

During the one-day MedFest held in Glendale, California, Kaiser Permanente volunteer physicians and medical school students cleared 46 athletes to participate in Special Olympics events.

Transforming care for people with intellectual disabilities

Since 2018, we have been the official health partner of Special Olympics Southern California, providing medical support to more than 1,200 athletes in safe and accessible environments. Physicians who participate receive training and experience in inclusive care that they can use as they treat others throughout Southern California.  

A physcian checks a patient's heart with a stethoscope.

Ramin Zolfagari, MD, checks the heart rate of Michael Leon.

“In our responsibility to our athletes, we create an inclusive environment where they can comfortably and safely receive care,” said Jeff Van Fossen, assistant vice president, Sports and Programs, at Special Olympics Southern California. “Partnering with Kaiser Permanente to organize MedFests throughout Southern California is part of our commitment to our athletes.”

For MedFests and other events, Aaron Rubin, MD, family and sports medicine physician for the Kaiser Permanente Fontana and Ontario medical centers and chief medical officer for Special Olympics Southern California oversees physicians and other medical volunteers to provide care.

“At Kaiser Permanente, we encourage everyone to be involved with Special Olympics Southern California,” said Dr. Rubin. “It’s how we are going to transform health care and build healthier communities.”

“I’m thankful for the opportunity to be part of these athletes’ journeys,” said Mark Sanders, a medical student at the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine and MedFest volunteer. “It reminds me how I can champion inclusive care as a future physician. Volunteering with SOSC also reminds me that sports participation has the potential to inspire an active lifestyle, social connectedness, and promote overall well-being.”

Become a volunteer with Special Olympics Southern California and learn more about upcoming MedFests.