Getting Sick On A Tropical Island = Rip Off

Dr. Phil Zeltzman recounts a tropical vacation that ended with a trip to the hospital and an empty wallet.”

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During a recent tropical vacation, one young member of our group became acutely ill the night of our arrival. Hallucinations, ADR and high temperature (Note to self: Bring a digital thermometer along next time – it weighs less than a couple of ounces). Please note that Veterinary Practice News is rated PG 13, so rest assured that no drugs or alcohol were involved in this story.

The next morning, we headed to the local physician. After a cursory exam and a $100 tab, he decided that to be on the safe side, we should see a pediatrician. We asked how much it might cost, but he claimed to have no idea.  Since nobody could in good conscience take a chance with some strange exotic disease, some well-known current local microbe or something like meningitis, we decided to follow his advice.

We hopped into a cab to the local hospital, with which the local doctor was affiliated. It looked like several Americans were in the same sad situation during their vacation. Among them, a few stood out in the waiting room.

One lady, who had had a knee replacement, slipped on a wet floor, fell, and apparently dislodged her tibial prosthesis. At least, that was her own diagnostic, based on the fact that her foot was at a 90 degree angle.

Another lady got up from the breakfast table, and Crack! She re-broke her knee. It had been repaired a few months prior.

In addition, a local lady was there with her sick little girl, patiently waiting their turn.

We gave up on the idea of calling the insurance company based on the experience of the other patients: They either never got a phone line, heard a busy signal, or received a promise for help that was never kept. All calls were dropped after either 36 rings or a given wait time. Typical customer service if you ask me…

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We patiently waited for our turn, as the gringos were admitted one by one.

Then we were finally called in. After asking a few questions, the pediatrician performed a cursory exam of our young patient: Temp (it was now back to normal), abdominal palpation, otoscopic exam, done. Her stethoscope remained around her neck the entire time. She was in and out in less than 5 minutes. Her diagnosis: gastroenteritis. I may be a lowly vet, but I have to wonder if her diagnosis was accurate in the absence of abdominal pain, vomiting or diarrhea. She dispensed some amino-acids and probiotics (for a mere $90) and said all would be better in no time.

So we headed to the check-out desk. The bill turned out to be $487. For a 5 minute exam and a questionable diagnosis. Now, to be perfectly fair, this all happened on their Independence Day. But still. (Note to self: Never get sick on Independence Day on an exotic island.)

When we left the hospital, the local lady was still there with her little girl, patiently waiting for their turn. Her bill certainly wouldn’t be $487 and she wasn’t a gringo, so she had to wait.

But wait, there’s more! A few days later, the local physician somehow managed to find us in a restaurant and told us that there was a big mistake: We only paid part of what we were supposed to. I’ll spare you our reaction. Long story short: The check-out lady typed 10,016 (local currency) on her credit card terminal, when she supposedly should have typed 19,016. So we actually owed another $230, for a grand total of $717. Fuzzy math if you ask me…

What would you have done? Of course, we complied and paid the extra amount. After all, we did intend on leaving the country without experiencing jail time. 

Back home, I made a point of asking a few colleagues what they would have done if they had been in a similar situation with a pet owner. And sure enough, they’ve faced this embarrassing situation before…

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• If it's a small mistake, they'd rather forget the whole thing than alienate a client.
• If the sum is substantial, most would have someone (the culprit or the office manager) call the clients to apologize profusely and explain the error.
• One would "just run the credit card again for the difference."
• All agreed that prevention is the best approach. It's always better to double and triple check numbers before sending a client on their way.

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a mobile, board-certified surgeon in Allentown, Pa. He is the co-author of “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound.”

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