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Palmer, hospital become partners

The Baltimore Sun

In the ever-competitive business of health care, Union Memorial Hospital has taken a shot at a marketing coup with legendary golfer Arnold Palmer lending his name to the hospital's sports medicine program.

Palmer took a break yesterday from the Constellation Energy Classic at Hayfields Country Club in Hunt Valley to announce the establishment of the Arnold Palmer SportsHealth Center at the Baltimore hospital.

Union Memorial hopes that Palmer, playing in his first tournament in almost a year and just days after his 77th birthday, will provide an example for other professional athletes and "weekend warriors."

While executives declined to say whether Palmer has donated any money along with his name, experts say it doesn't matter: His name is enough.

"Hospitals need name recognition to attract patients," said Gerard F. Anderson, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Hospital Finance and Management.

"It's no different than Nike having Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods," Anderson said.

Partnerships between professional athletes and hospitals is a national trend, as hospitals compete for patients to offset tight reimbursements from insurers and the government.

Palmer's name will attract not only patients but philanthropic dollars, Anderson said. And unlike the young and healthy Tiger Woods, Palmer appeals to a wide age group, from 20 to 70-plus, he said.

"This is someone you recognize and trust," Anderson said. "It's purely name recognition for Union Memorial."

Sports medicine is a profit center for a hospital, Anderson said, especially with the large number of baby boomers looking for rehabilitative care to sustain their active lifestyles. Partnerships with professional athletes such as Palmer can give hospitals an edge in competing for patients, he said.

Other ventures

But ties between athletes and hospitals don't guarantee success.

A joint venture between Orioles star Cal Ripken Jr. and LifeBridge Health, owner of Sinai Hospital, lasted only a year. The two opened the Cal Ripken Jr. Sports Acceleration Center in Columbia in 1998, with plans to open two more around Maryland that incorporated fitness with sports medicine.

But the hospital exited the business a year later. Ripken operated it as a fitness training center for young athletes, and had planned to expand it to professional athletes and weekend warriors, but ended up closing it in 2002.

In 1999, New England Baptist Hospital and the Boston-based CareGroup hospital network built a $32 million free-standing building in a Boston suburb for its sports medicine partnership with the local professional basketball team, the Celtics. For a fee, patients could seek one-on-one care with doctors and work out alongside the professional basketball team. That venture ended three years later, when the financially troubled health care network sold it to a fitness chain.

Dr. Thomas J. Graham, director of the new Union Memorial center, said Palmer's endorsement is not a "marketing tool." However, he said Palmer's name will help the hospital attract patient revenue and fundraising dollars allowing it to build new labs and recruit experts in the field.

"Health care is a challenging business. It's not like any other," Graham said. "People are making choices."

Union Memorial prides itself on treating a roster of professional athletes, and is the official caretaker of the Ravens football team. Graham, like Palmer a native of western Pennsylvania, said he was a big fan before becoming one of his doctors. He said it was Palmer's idea to establish a partnership because he wants "athletes from all walks of life, from the sandlot to the professional level," to care about their health.

Palmer has already seen what his brand name can do for hospitals. This is the fourth hospital to which Palmer has lent his identity. Two are cancer treatment centers, including one in his native Latrobe, Pa. The third is a children's hospital in Orlando, where he has a second home - and which he helped to raise $30 million for construction.

For Palmer, the connection with hospitals is personal: He survived a battle with prostate cancer; his wife, Winnie, died in 1999 of ovarian cancer; and one of his daughters had breast cancer. "I'm always careful as to what I get involved with," Palmer said. "I don't want to sound like a broken record."

100 referrals

Palmer became a patient of Graham's about five years ago for an undisclosed hand injury. Since then, Palmer has referred more than 100 professional athletes to Union Memorial, including Scott Hoch, who was also playing in this week's tournament after being out almost a year because of wrist surgery.

Graham said the partnership with Palmer will be different from those that failed. Union Memorial's existing sports medicine program will be expanded over time, and, if philanthropy supports it, the hospital would build a free-standing sports medicine center with Palmer's name on it. For now, the center will be housed on Union Memorial's campus, with the opening scheduled for spring 2007.

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