Are pacts linking pro sports teams and providers fair?

AMA ethicists question sponsorship deals

Is a sick person in Houston more likely to seek care at Methodist Hospital because that facility is the "official hospital" of the Houston Astros, a Major League Baseball team? Does a sponsorship deal between a medical group and a team that involves player care put physicians in an ethical bind between the interests of the team and the interests of injured players?

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), delegates of the AMA Council on Ethics and Judicial Affairs (CEJA) discussed the propriety of such arrangements, through which physicians, hospitals, or health systems pay for the exclusive right to bill themselves as official providers of care to athletes, or, more broadly, the "official hospital of" a particular team, during the AMA's interim meeting in November.

In some cases, practice groups or hospitals pay millions to a major league football, basketball, or baseball franchise in exchange for the right to provide care to the players, and to advertise that role — a far cry from the days when teams paid physicians, rather than the other way around.

Under other arrangements, usually involving hospitals or health systems, a team is paid a fee for the right for a hospital to bill itself as the "official hospital," giving the hospital a prestigious marketing platform, the opportunity for joint community benefit projects, and a presence at the sports venues; but players are not required to seek care at the sponsoring hospital.

For example, in the case of the Boston Red Sox, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is the Red Sox organization's "official hospital," but does not actually provide care to players. Beth Israel provides first aid to fans and others attending Red Sox games at Fenway Park, sponsors scholarships, and conducts joint community projects with the team. The Red Sox and Beth Israel in October 2007 agreed to a second five-year relationship; the fee the medical center will pay the team was not disclosed.

CEJA delegates raised concerns that when a health system's paid sponsorship agreement with a sports organization does involve patient care, there could be conflicting interest between what is best for the team and what is best for the player/patient.

Beth Israel CEO Paul Levy says there is no such ethical conflict in his hospital's arrangement, since the hospital does not provide care to players as part of the agreement.

Additionally, Major League Baseball and the players' organization have policies that prohibit players' medical care from being tied to sponsorship contracts. The National Football League also has a policy that prohibits football teams from entering into marketing contracts with health providers that require players to use the sponsoring health systems' physicians.

Some CEJA delegates suggested that the council declare the practice of marketing sponsorships unethical, but no action was taken on the issue.