The Ultimate Professional Medical Care

Crain's New York Business—July 22, 2007

It's not unusual to hear a variety of languages in the waiting room of orthopedic surgeon Dr. Riley J. Williams III.

Though he has had a busy sports medicine practice for a decade, it wasn't until Dr. Williams became head physician for the New York Red Bulls soccer team two years ago that his patient roster went international. European and South American players now seek him out.

Dr. Williams is one of many physicians at Hospital for Special Surgery who work with professional sports organizations. These official arrangements can play a vital role in attracting patients, who view the doctors' affiliations as an endorsement of their expertise.

Dr. Williams estimates that he gets at least one new patient a week due to his connection with the Red Bulls.

Skill verification

"People think if you're involved with the care of these teams, you must have good skills," says Dr. Williams, who is also head physician for the New Jersey Nets.

Fans are especially likely to choose hospitals that treat pros, says Lee Igel, a professor of organizational psychology at New York University. "It's an opportunity for patients to align themselves with a favorite athlete or team," he says.

But such deals don't always work out. For instance, a pact made earlier in the decade between the New York Mets and the New York University Hospital for Joint Diseases, introduced with great fanfare, ended badly after three years.

Though some patients may view treatment of a sports team as confirmation of a physician's skill, others have somewhat superficial reasons for making an appointment: They like going to a doctor who takes care of celebrities.

"It allows that patient to say, `I'm somebody important,' " Mr. Igel says.

The official doctors for most New York teams are at Hospital for Special Surgery, which has marketing relationships with those organizations.

Among other things, the Upper East Side facility gets to advertise in the teams' playing venues at a slight discount and to display their logos on the hospital's Web site, says Deborah Sale, executive vice president for external affairs at HSS.

Referrals via publicity

The hospital has also taken out full-page print ads featuring athletes like Mets players Carlos Delgado and Pedro Martinez. Ms. Sale declined to provide financial details.

HSS gets significant free publicity out of the deals, as well. When players or staff members are injured or otherwise need treatment, local news reports mention that they're getting it at HSSas they did when Mets Manager Willie Randolph had shoulder surgery July 9. Dr. Williams says people conducting Internet searches often find out about him via those reports.

In some cases, the team doctor was in place before the marketing relationship. For example, Dr. Russell Warren of HSS was named the Giants' physician in 1984, but a marketing deal wasn't struck until 2000.

Going outside

Players are allowed to go outside HSS, says Giants' spokesman Pat Hanlon. "It happens all the time that players get second opinions," he says. But a relationship with a hospital can unravel if team members aren't on board in general.

In 2001, New York University Hospital for Joint Diseases agreed to pay $1 million a year to the Mets to be designated the team physicians. Both the hospital and the Mets declined to comment, but players were reportedly unhappy with the care they got and reluctant to sever longtime ties with other practitioners.

An agreement between the Yankees and Continuum Health Partners' Beth Israel also collapsed.

If the relationship is a good one, however, both the hospital and the athletes benefit.

"It adds a comfortability factor in an environment that can be uncomfortable," says Giants' center Shaun O'Hara. He has been with the team four years, during which he has had arthroscopic surgery on his elbow at Hospital for Special Surgery.

"Part of my game-day routine every Sunday is to shake Dr. Warren's hand," Mr. O'Hara says.

Players Welcome

Hospital for Special Surgery has arrangements with several teams and organizations, including:

  • Association of Tennis Professionals
  • Giants
  • Knicks
  • Liberty
  • Mets
  • Nets
  • Red Bulls

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