How MUSC's chief physician executive is helping shape the world of sports in the coronavirus era

July 23, 2020
Man standing in lab with arms crossed while wearing a doctor's coat
Eugene Hong, M.D., is one of the most respected figures in sports medicine. He knows getting back to "normal" as far as sports goes will be tricky, but believes it can be done. Photo by Son Nguyen

Like many kids, Eugene Hong, M.D., loved sports growing up. Unlike most kids, however, he had a wise-beyond-his-years sense of reality.

“I was a very average athlete,” Hong says with a laugh. “Being a pro wasn’t ever going to happen.”

Turns out, he was only partly right. Years later, he would learn about something called sports medicine, a relatively new area to the field of orthopedics at the time. His never-dying love of sports and exercise would guide him in that direction, and in doing so, upon graduation from Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, he actually got to be a professional in the field he so dearly loved.

“Very few people here know that’s my specialty,” explained the chief physician executive for MUSC Physicians and MUSC Health. 

That expertise led to his scholarly work being cited on ESPN and in The New York Times and funding from the National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense and the NCAA. Last month, he published a first-of-its-kind textbook on the mental health of athletes. 

But for many years, Hong served as the head team physician at Saint Joseph’s University, Drexel University and Philadelphia University, where he looked after athletes in all their major sports. 

“That was icing on the cake,” he said. “It combined a love of sports and helping people.”

Eventually he would go into academic medicine, becoming a leading authority on concussions and cardiac issues and overuse injuries in athletes, but all the while, he kept one foot planted firmly in the world of sports, serving as the team physician for the U.S. Under 19 men’s and women’s national lacrosse teams. His list of clients included elite college players, professional athletes and Olympic hopefuls.

“I know people think it’s glamorous to treat high-profile athletes, but it’s the weekend warriors of all ages are who are our bread and butter,” he said. 

In fact, in between all of his responsibilities as chief physician executive – which include overseeing the entire MUSC Health practice plan, essentially governing 1,200 physicians – the sports medicine board-certified doctor actually still sees patients on Fridays. Mixed in with all that, he also serves at the chief medical officer for Clemson University Athletics.

Recently, the MUSC Health’s CPE discussed how recreational, as well as professional sports, can be safely reintroduced into our culture and why, even in the time of COVID-19, they are just as important as ever.

Q. When this whole pandemic was just starting to get the general public’s attention back in February, you were a part of a group that recommended the NCAA conduct its March Madness basketball tournaments with no spectators, right?

A. When the NCAA announced it was putting together a small committee to advise how to handle March Madness – a committee I was not part of – it included only one team physician, who was a friend of mine. I reached out to her at the time and asked if it would be helpful to have a small group to feed her info, questions, you know, act as a sounding board. She liked the idea, ran it by the NCAA, and they were on board. So I got together a group of about 10 NCAA team physicians from around the country. I don’t know that I directly had a voice, but I know our group did, and we came to the decision that there should be no spectators. We weren’t advising to cancel the tournament, but we felt there shouldn’t be any people in the stands, which at the time, was bold. It was very scary. Of course, they ended up canceling it altogether, and I remember being like, "Holy cow, they went from no spectators to no tournament."

Q. It really feels like that set the tone for what was to come. Do you look back proudly on the way you and your colleagues handled things, especially since we didn’t know how major this pandemic was going to be at the time?

A. I’m very proud, but I would stop short of calling us smart. (Laughs.)

Honestly, with a lot of COVID-19 decisions, we are building the airplane as we fly it. We just made a good decision. 

Q. Of course the world’s health is top priority, but when will we get sports back?

A. Sports are so important to our society. It’s one of the reasons why I love what I do. The idea of being active is the right thing to do on so many levels, but at the same time, I’m aware of the medical side of the pandemic. So I am very concerned we’re still dealing with it. In sports medicine, we are anticipating outbreaks and spikes within sports. It’s our job to help keep people safe, including our athletes and coaches. We want people to engage in sports and exercise as quickly as possible, but at the same time, we need to do that as safely as possible. Whether rehabbing from a knee injury or recovering from a pandemic, it’s the same idea. 

Q. Different professional leagues have announced varying plans for how they plan to proceed with their respective upcoming seasons. Is there a danger that amateur sports and recreational athletes will follow their lead?

A. There is no doubt that what those higher elite levels do is emulated. But I would caution anybody in the community: Sometimes you don’t want to do what the pros do. 

Whatever decisions we make, be it for the NBA or recreational youth baseball, we need to be very aggressive. Self-monitor. Report. Don’t come to practice if you’re sick. The infectious disease people have all said this is going to be here for a while. Of course, with sports, many of the players – whether it’s youths or pros – are going to be healthy in general. But they all have loved ones who might be at an increased risk. While we open up society, including sports and exercise, we need to be sure to keep up our vigilance because many medical experts think there will be outbreaks for a while. 

Q. How will sports be different going forward?

A. We want sports and exercise to be a part of everyone’s life as a way of keeping them healthy and well. The challenge with COVID-19 is threading the needle. In a team sport, what do we do? It’s on a case-by-case basis. So yes, eventually we’ll get back out there; it just might not look the same as we’re used to. What does this mean for fans of football, for instance? Well, it may be different going forward because it may not be safe to pack 80,000 people shoulder to shoulder. It’s going to be tough, and we’ll probably make some mistakes along the way. But I’m confident we’ll eventually figure it out.