Are You Ready for Some Football? - St Louis University Hospital Pays to be Official Hospital of the St Louis Rams

The St Louis Post-Dispatch reported on the latest fashions in hospital marketing:

St. Louis University Hospital calls itself the 'official' hospital of the St. Louis Rams on billboards and signs.

But its doctors provide no medical care for the Rams' team.

Team doctor Matt Matava and his colleagues from Washington University School of Medicine since 1995 have provided that service at BJC HealthCare facilities.

SLU Hospital defends the sponsorship deal. 'We're not out there trying to say we take care of the Rams,' said Laura Signaigo, its marketing and communications director. 'This is a marketing agreement.'

Sports teams have sponsorship arrangements with nearly every industry — from banks to breweries. Still, if a hospital calls itself the 'official' hospital of a sports team, do patients — and prospective patients — assume its physicians treat the players?

'Do I think it's clear to the general public (that this is a marketing agreement)? I don't know,' Signaigo said. 'I think the Rams have a product to sell, and I bought it.'

At one time, professional sports teams paid top dollar so their athletes could be treated by the best physicians. Then, the tables turned. Doctors and hospitals began paying teams — at times more than a $1 million a year — for the privilege of treating players.

A survey in 2004 by The New York Times found about half the teams in the four major North American professional leagues were tied contractually to a medical institution, and the numbers were growing. Those arrangements had varying business models. Few, if any, had an arrangement like the Rams and SLU Hospital, where the 'official' hospital did not provide care.

The advertisements never say the hospital's doctors are the Rams' physicians or that the hospital provides care, said Matt Marchal, who at the time was a sales manager for the Rams. He recently changed jobs and now works in insurance.

'They're leveraging the relationship … being associated with a professional football team carries a lot of weight,' Marchal said.

Signaigo also points out the term 'official hospital' is the Rams' terminology. It is supposed to signify a level of sponsorship, not a clinical relationship, she said.

'The purpose from a marketing perspective, in my opinion, is to tie into the positive perceptions that these organizations have with the public,' Signaigo said.

In my humble opinion, the most likely interpretation of a statement that the hospital is the "official" hospital of a sports team would be that the team gets their care at the hospital. The wording on its surface does not suggest that the hospital paid the team for the designation. Thus, this seems to be a particulary cynical way to market a health care institution. But what else should we expect from marketers in health care?

There was once a time when hospitals (and doctors) did not advertise. Those pushing for advertising argued it would lead to more informed patients. To often, however, it seems mainly to lead to deception.

Until 1980, the American Medical Association warned, "the practice of medicine should not be commercialized, nor treated as a commodity in trade."(1) According to Dr Arnold Relman, it was forced to change that position after a 1975 US Supreme Court decision that decreased anti-trust protection for physicians, effectively treating them more as trades people than professionals. Maybe it is time to urge reconsideration of that decision, and more appreciation of the old AMA policy.


1. Relman AS. Medical professionalism in a commercial health care market. JAMA 2007; 298: 2668-2670. Link here.

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