What do Michael Jordan and COVID-19 have in common?

Updated: Aug 16



The Netflix exclusive The Last Dance is a riveting documentary of the 1997–1998 NBA season of the Chicago Bulls. This is not simply another basketball team but one of the iconic sports franchises in history. And the czar of this athletic juggernaut is Michael Jordan, one of the most visible, talented, promoted, and recognized figures on the planet.


His legendary athletic skills were complemented by a street smart and savvy business sense. He was the first athlete of the modern era to deliberately promote himself and his brand, and his personality transformed the NBA into a global marketing, cultural, and athletic force.


So what does Michael have to do with COVID-19 during these perilous times in human history? Bear with me.


Many of us are exploring streaming services while confined at home. But that’s not my point either.


As the documentary unfolds, it becomes subtly apparent that Michael Jordan anticipated the transformation of the world of professional basketball. Traditionally, teams relied on a 7-foot 300-pound behemoth who would anchor under the rim, distribute the ball to the other four players, or occasionally take an 18-inch shot almost under the basket.


With the development of the three-point shot, which is typically taken 22 feet from the basket, Michael Jordan anticipated that the sniper, the sharpshooter who could “drain the 3 from downtown” would be a highly prized commodity. And he became one of the most prolific 3-point shooters especially during the playoffs when the stakes were high.


He also understood the risks of injury while driving to the basket trying to dodge defenders about the size of redwood trees. So Michael perfected the fade-away jump shot, which was almost impossible to defend. He also understood the importance of bringing on board a personal trainer who was a combination of a strength and conditioning coach and advisor. He carefully manicured and refined his skill set for the NBA of the future, not the NBA of the past.


But now for the rest of the story. I always have more.


Our faith community center has slowly opened with distancing restrictions because we have recognized the importance of community engagement during periods of isolation. Our church set up tables where four to six of us can sit six to eight feet apart.


The topic last Sunday: dealing with COVID-19 uncertainty.


At my table was the owner of auto dealerships, a manager of several high-end hotels, the CEO of a printing company, and an internal medicine resident. This designation indicated that the new doctor had earned a bachelor’s degree in college, an MD degree after four years of medical school, and now was in a three-year training program in general internal medicine to be followed by additional years in the subspecialty of cardiology.


The car guy, the hotel manager, and the printing CEO were pessimistic about their professions during these uncertain times. Because of unemployment and no clear stimulus package on the table, car sales were down by 70 percent. Hardly a ringing endorsement about the future of that industry.


The printing CEO saw his business evaporate since many print products were now online, and newspaper readership was at an all-time low. The hotel industry has taken an equally heavy hit with travel down substantially. I did not hear any plan B even though these were credentialed and successful individuals in their own right.


But the young physician shared some powerful lessons of resilience and survival. He said that in our community alone at least ten small clinics were closed to patient care, and in neighboring small towns the family practice clinics saw their walk-in traffic decrease by almost half. What was going on?


The answer was very simple. Patients and families were profoundly terrified by the notion of contracting the virus and decided to stay home rather than seek medical care. Appointment calendars were open. Elective surgeries were curtailed, and revenues in the healthcare industry plummeted.


However, a consequence of this development was the resurrection of telemedicine (the subject of an earlier blog). The notion of a physician connecting with the patient through a computer screen is hardly new, but the idea was viewed primarily as a novelty and never really achieved prime time status. But with COVID-19, the reimbursement climate dramatically changed.


Government-sponsored health insurance and private insurance carriers were reimbursing for telemedicine visits at a pace comparable to the face-to-face consultation. The satisfaction index of patients was 80 to 90%, and as providers became more comfortable with the technology, patients also appreciated the overwhelming convenience of receiving care for routine issues in their own home.


The savvy resident recognized the incredible and almost limitless possibilities of this technology. He shared with us that he has taken myriad online courses on this technology on how to conduct a consultation so that the patient and family feel validated and acknowledged and cared for. He harnessed the skill set of having two monitors in the exam room. On one monitor with a camera he could visit with the patient face-to-face. And on the other monitor he could show X-rays, laboratory data, and other intriguing developments.


There was almost a Star Wars and video-game energy as he described what he has learned and how he is delivering medical care.


So what lessons can we take away from this meeting following a fairly routine church service?


  • Michael Jordan anticipated the trajectory of basketball and transformed the game and his life. Our internal medicine resident is anticipating the trajectory of medicine and is transforming his career. He clearly understands that the stethoscope and reflex hammer have become somewhat irrelevant in the digital age. And medicine will be practiced through the mouse, the cursor, and the keyboard.

  • The auto dealership guru and the hotel manager and printing company CEOs did not articulate a Plan B. They were drifting and hoping that some magical ship with a genie in a bottle would lead them to the promised land. The smart money would say that will not happen.

  • Be alert, engaged, and anticipate the future, because, like Michael Jordan, maybe we can create the future.


© 2020  Edward T. Creagan, MD, and Write On Ink Publishing