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Meet the doc who put Derrick Rose back on the court—finally

Dr. Brian Cole's reputation hinges on Chicago's most scrutinized left knee. The orthopedic surgeon has guided Derrick Rose through every stop and go since replacing the Chicago Bulls guard's torn anterior cruciate ligament nearly 18 months ago. To the dismay of fans, Rose sat out last season, but he has performed well during exhibition games this month.

As the Bulls' team physician, Cole, 50, is one of a handful of doctors who can claim one of Chicago's major professional sports teams as a client. Yet more than any of his peers, Cole and his physicians group, Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush, have used the glow of professional athletes to draw in weekend warriors who have injured themselves on the slopes or at the health club.

Rose's return will be a test not only of Cole's healing powers but also of a marketing strategy that focuses on the star patients of the medical practice.“As a doctor, your handiwork is on display in front of everybody,” says John Hefferon, a Chicago orthopod who was the Bulls' doctor for 13 years and treated Michael Jordan's broken left foot in 1985. “If you do well it's great, but if you're having problems, your name comes up in a different light.”

An energetic man whose voice has a gritty urgency, Cole says he is motivated by the results-oriented nature of sports medicine, helping patients achieve “very specific goals.” In addition to his surgical expertise, the University of Chicago MBA graduate shows business savvy.

Raised in Highland Park, Cole joined Midwest in 1997 after completing a general surgery internship at Loyola University Medical Center, a research fellowship and an orthopedic residency at Cornell Medical Center in New York and a sports medicine fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh. A big break for Cole came in 2003, when his partner, Charles Bush-Joseph, was named head team physician of the White Sox, which is owned by Jerry Reinsdorf. The following year, the Bulls, also owned by Reinsdorf, named Cole team physician.

The teams pay a retainer to Midwest, which staffs home games and preseason training. Tests and services are billed to the teams' insurers.

Demand for orthopedic surgery is expected to continue to grow, as an increasing number of baby boomers seek knee and hip replacements and a younger, athletically minded set tries to maintain peak performance.

In business more than three decades, Midwest has 40 orthopedists in specialties ranging from workplace injuries to spinal deformities. In 2009, the practice moved to the Rush University Medical Center campus, taking space in a new, $75 million building that bears its name.

Midwest declines to disclose revenue or profits. Even in the recent recession, when overall demand for medical care declined, its annual surgeries remained steady at about 14,000 a year, CEO Dennis Viellieu says.

A team affiliation matters to some patients, Chicago Blackhawks team doctor Michael Terry says. “A lot of patients take comfort in the fact that their doctor looks after pro athletes,” he adds.

See a lineup of Cole's marquee patients (new window)

Cole says he treats professional athletes no differently from his other patients, who account for more than 95 percent of his practice. But the rarefied world in which the pros live and work—their extensive entourages, their tight game schedules and, of course, their multimillion-dollar contracts—makes a difference.

“There's just a lot at stake at many levels,” Cole says. He declines to comment on specific players.

The physicians sometimes have to fly at a moment's notice to care for an injured player, say people familiar with the practice. House calls and late-night phone calls from players or their wives are not unusual.

“Essentially, it's concierge medicine,” says Bush-Joseph, managing partner at Midwest.

Sports agents are a key source of patients, and they care most about surgical skill.

“The decisions that we make in terms of who's going to perform the surgery . . . are huge decisions,” Chicago-based sports agent Mark Bartelstein says. “Brian is one of my guys for knees and shoulders.”

A spokeswoman for Rose's agent, former Bull B.J. Armstrong, declines to comment.

Cole's career in competitive sports ended after he graduated from Deerfield High School, where he played football, at 5-foot-8, 185 pounds. These days he skis and climbs mountains, a hobby he took up in his 40s. He has scaled Mount Rainier near Seattle and Grand Teton in Wyoming in recent years.

Cole says he initially was interested in obstetrics and pediatrics at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. He earned an MBA in 1989 and an M.D. in 1990, at a time when such dual degrees were uncommon.

He isn't above a little promotion: He parlayed his nationally recognized research in cartilage restoration, or transplanting the connective tissue to repair an injured joint, into a separate service line for Midwest.

The practice sponsors Cole's Saturday-morning sports medicine program on WMVP-AM/1000, which he co-hosts. It brings in $50,000 a year, which funds orthopedic research, he says.

Cole “clearly has an understanding of the business side of orthopedics and medicine that is better than most,” Terry says.

When asked if he considers himself an entrepreneur, Cole bristles, saying, “Your best entrepreneurship is working hard and doing the right thing.”

Rose, named NBA MVP during the 2010-11 season, likely will face more setbacks during the grueling 82-game NBA season, which starts Oct. 29. He has said that his vertical leap has increased five inches, to 42 inches, since the injury.

After an Oct. 16 win over the Detroit Pistons in a preseason game, he told ESPNChicago.com: “I think I'm way more explosive now.”

Meet the doc who put Derrick Rose back on the court — finally originally appeared on the website of Crain's Chicago Business.
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