The indoor football practice field at Cole Field House. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The University of Maryland on Thursday announced steps toward establishing an overhauled model for athlete health care that would be independent of the university’s athletic department.

The changes, announced by Athletic Director Damon Evans on a conference call, will begin with a national search for a head physician, who will be tasked with overseeing athletic trainers and sports medicine staff. The selection process will be directed by the university rather than the athletic department.

Under the new model, the head physician will report to the director of the University Health Center, whose chain of command continues through the vice president for student affairs and then the university president. Personnel decisions, including hiring and firing, will be made through the new reporting structure.

Previously at Maryland, athletic trainers reported to administrators within the athletic department and were supervised by physicians from the school of medicine.

The changes are in response to a pair of external investigations conducted in the wake of the death of football player Jordan McNair last June. One report, led by athletic training consultant Rod Walters, detailed how Maryland’s athletic staff failed to properly diagnose and treat heat stroke suffered by McNair during a team workout. A second report, conducted by an eight-person commission that investigated allegations of an abusive culture within the football program, included a recommendation for the university to establish an independent health care model for athletes.

When asked for a timeline for the implementation of the new model, Evans did not give specific target dates but said it could take “some time” to hire physicians and that some physicians are required to give three months’ notice when leaving their jobs. Evans said the priority is to “provide the best possible solution.”

The university will fund the position of the head team physician, while the athletic department will provide funds to be used by the independent health care unit.

The Walters report, released in September, detailed 20 recommendations related to medical care issues, including one “to allow provision of appropriate medical care in a best practice model.” Maryland previously announced it had implemented the other recommendations.

A separate committee of sports medicine experts, led by Walters, recommended the model the university will implement.

“Every single [sports medicine expert] will tell you that the independent medical model is vital,” said Charles Scheeler, a Baltimore attorney who helped lead the eight-person commission that issued the report on the football program’s culture. “Because the people who make the decisions about a student’s health should be doctors, not people who are paid by whether they win an athletic competition. That’s the only way to ensure that the decisions about a student’s health are being made for the right reasons.”

This spring, Maryland launched an athletic medicine review board, a 10-person group led by Walters, to oversee the athletic department’s health and welfare policies. Scheeler said he also would like to see periodic public reports that monitor how Maryland is complying with the various recommendations.

The independent medical model is a significant step to allow medical staff members to make the best decision for the well-being of athletes. If a medical professional’s position falls under the umbrella of athletics, he or she could feel pressured by a coach to make a decision in the interest of the team, rather than the athlete, proponents of the independent medical model say.

“As athletic departments are moving forward, I do anticipate this is going to be a trend, and I’m really pleased to see the University of Maryland really leading this trend within college athletics,” said Matt Leiszler, the football team physician at Notre Dame, who spoke on the conference call in a personal capacity as an expert in sports medicine. “It is a little unique at this point. I think it’s going to serve the University of Maryland extremely well and it’s going to improve and really continue excellent care for the student-athletes at University of Maryland, which is the priority.”

Evans said the athletic department will look to go beyond the 20 recommendations outlined in the Walters report, evaluating other best practices as they become available. Once hired, the new head team physician also could implement various new policies.

“Maryland has been subject to a tragic student-athlete death,” Scheeler said. “It is Maryland’s responsibility to become the leader in student-athlete health and well-being. That is the only acceptable legacy for Jordan McNair’s tragic death.”

Read more:

For Maryland goalie Megan Taylor, ‘there’s no time to be stressed’ — even in the Final Four

Maryland AD says most reforms recommended in wake of Jordan McNair’s death are in place

A timeline of events at the University of Maryland in McNair saga