An NFL player infects the Cleveland Clinic. How far will it spread?

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Flickr photo courtesy of Jason PeroCLEVELAND, Ohio — Maybe the Cleveland Clinic’s endorsement deal with Jhonny Peralta was a lesson.

A few years ago the Cleveland Indians infielder had a ubiquitous commercial on local airwaves lauding his Cleveland Clinic LASIK surgery. Peralta was good before the surgery, but his play around airtime was erratic. The radio spot became the butt of jokes by some of the city’s cynical sports fans, and his recent play has made him an object of scorn around the city.

Nationally, few knew about the Peralta commercial. But it’s more likely they’ve heard of Joe Jurevicius, the former Cleveland Browns player who last week sued the Clinic, his old team and Clinic physicians for not sterilizing the team’s training facility and not warning him that the Browns were not doing everything they needed to protect their players.

The Clinic likely could lose credibility — no matter the verdict — from the lawsuit that connects the hot topics of pro-football, medical lawsuits, drug-resistant infections and the pop-culture world of ESPN. One lesson: high-profile connections between health systems and sports teams have unpredictable downsides.

“I think in general, if I’m on the payroll of an institution like the Cleveland Clinic, I’m not in favor of promoting these kinds of partnerships,” said Jeffrey Nemetz, founder of HBG Health, a health-care marketing firm in Chicago.

Jurevicius is Peralta multiplied by 100. An affidavit in the suit by California doctor Bonnie Bock said Clinic physicians should have known about the dangers at the Browns’ training facility — which the suit said was not sterile. The Clinic and its doctors, Bock states, breached the applicable standard of care, and their conduct contributed to Jurevicius contracting a staph infection soon after a surgery in January 2008.

This one was ruled an error: Peralta-Clinic endorsement deal hasn't worked out at planned.

This one was ruled an error: the Peralta-Clinic endorsement deal hasn't worked out as planned.

“He chose to accept care and treatment from the Browns’ staff and the Cleveland Clinic physicians because he trusted and believed what he was told about the staph problem,” Jurevicius’ attorney, Shannon Polk, told The Plain Dealer. “It turns out he shouldn’t have.”

The Browns have denied the charges. Cleveland Clinic spokeswoman Eileen Sheil declined to discuss the case, which is common with pending litigation.

Six Browns players since 2003 have been diagnosed with staph. And it doesn’t help the Clinic that in once instance — with high-profile tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. — Browns management urged Winslow to keep the situation from going public.

But it could have been worse. The fact that Jurevicius did not get the staph infection at the Clinic’s main campus helps protect the health system.

Plus, Jurevicius was at best a third-string wide receiver who already had been bounced out of the league. If it had been Browns quarterback Brady Quinn suing the Clinic, the story would have gotten more air play.

Yet a lawsuit like this could tarnish what one health marketer called the Clinic’s “halo for clinical excellence.” In an era in which patients Google health information and then question their doctors’ recommendations, the Clinic is one of a few institutions nationwide that people believe. The suit likely won’t rob the Clinic of its market share, but it could lead to more second opinions of physician diagnoses, more doubt and less trust.

Assuming the suit fails, the Clinic would still need to make a statement to reassure the public. Browns officials say their training facility meets NFL cleanliness guidelines. After the suit is complete, the Clinic should say it will hold the facilities with which it is associated to an even higher standard of cleanliness.

Maybe the Jurevicius and Peralta experiences will temper the infatuation many health-care institutions have with being connected to pro sports teams. Only a handful of athletes and sports teams is consistently positive over time, and the negative examples can be more trouble than they’re worth.

The NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers’ practice facility is called Cleveland Clinic Courts. That’s a golden endorsement, at the moment. But what happens if LeBron James leaves for another team, and the Cavs become cellar dwellers for the following eight years?

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jason Pero]

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Chris Seper

By Chris Seper MedCity News

Chris Seper runs and contributes regularly to the site. He is the vice president of healthcare for Breaking Media, MedCity's corporate owners. Reach him at [email protected]
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