Zocdoc vs OpenTable

The idea behind ZocDoc is brilliant: a modern, super-easy web site that lets you book a doctor appointment as easily as OpenTable lets you book restaurant reservations. ZocDoc knows each doctor’s specialties, which ones take which insurance plans, their location, and — the best part — which times are available for appointments. Go to one web site, enter your information, and immediately doctors in your neighborhood that meet your requirements. Find one you like, book the appointment, and that’s it!

That’s what’s supposed to happen, but unfortunately the inanity of the American healthcare system gets in the way, and today was the second time I’ve been unhappily surprised at the results.

The front end works fine. I entered my information and quickly found a list of doctors in my area that meet my requirements, including availability times. I hit submit and that was it: a nice, professional confirmation for a visit with a doctor with good reviews. They even added the appointment automatically to my iPhone calendar, and offered to text me a reminder before the visit. ZocDoc already knows my insurance and basic health information, so I didn’t even need to fill out additional forms for the visit. Perfect!

Unfortunately, that’s as far as the resemblance to OpenTable restaurant reservations ends.  I had scheduled my appointment for 1pm, right after lunch in the area close to where I knew I was going, but early on the day of the appointment I received an odd email from a different doctor confirming my appointment for 11am. The ZocDoc site knew nothing about this, so I called the new doctor to see what was happening.

The new doctor’s receptionist was confused too. From her point of view, I had made an appointment at 11am. If I didn’t show up on time, or if I canceled the appointment less than 24 hours beforehand, she would charge me a fee. The fact that I had booked it through ZocDoc — and that I had a different time confirmed — was not relevant to her.

Well, I shifted things around so that I was able to make the 11am appointment, but frustratingly, when I arrived I had to fill in all the forms (again). A cheerful physician’s assistant brought me into the exam room, took my vital signs and then, almost as a side comment, warned that my insurance company probably wouldn’t reimburse me for today’s visit.  What!?

By then, it was really too late for me to get up and walk out the door. The doctor arrived, I had my brief appointment (I wanted somebody to look at a suspicious mole) and that was it. No problems, I’m fine.

Later, at the original ZocDoc appointment time, I received that promised text message reminding me of my visit and helpfully offering to give me additional support if I reply with the message ’s’.  I did, and talked with a very kind, helpful ZocDoc representative who assured me that they do everything possible to ensure that I have a good experience, blah blah blah.

This is turning into a long rant and I appreciate, dear reader, your indulgence as I get this off my chest. But it occurs to me that ZocDoc is in a business that is fundamentally so different from OpenTable, that it may be impossible to give me a good experience. Unlike OpenTable, ZocDoc’s “customers” (physicians pay them a flat monthly fee to be listed on the site) already have too many IT systems. From insurance and Medicaid reimbursement to government-mandated certification, HIPAA, and reporting requirements, their staff is probably just too busy to deal with yet another web site. Solving that “last-mile” problem with the receptionists would require much more training and hand-holding than ZocDoc can afford.

Eventually all of this will be sorted out and sometime in the future doctors will join the 20th century IT revolution just like every other industry, but it will be a long time. If you want high-tech, don’t go to the doctor: go to a restaurant.
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