Saturday, July 19, 2008

We are all in this together!

This is kind of long and I apologize in advance. Don't feel obligated to read it. It's just my personal ponderings.

“In the long run, there can be no real joy for anybody until there is joy finally for us all.” Frederick Buechner

One morning last week, Dana Charter (who works for my good friend Matt Montgomery) stopped by my lab with coffee and donuts. He had a few questions about my digital camera and since it’s the one I recommended they buy, he thought I might be able to help him out. As we were chatting, my first patient arrived, so I started the photos on him while I continued my conversation with Dana. After a few minutes I felt a bit uncomfortable that I was ignoring my patient so I explained to him what was going on, and I introduced Dana to him as a “competitor”. Before I could qualify that his lab is 20 miles away so we’re really NOT competitors, Dana interrupted with the declaration, “I’m offended by that! We are not competitors, we are colleagues!” I smiled sheepishly, acknowledged my mistake, and we continued on with our “collegial” discussion.

Jump back in time with me. It’s about 30 years ago. My lab was located about 10 miles south in Newport Beach. It never really was a successful venture and eventually the owner moved it to the area around Huntington Beach, where he thought it could do better. Shortly after the move, a group of Newport Beach doctors decided to fill the void by opening a lab for their patients, but soon realized that there just wasn’t enough business in the area to support it. So they decided to offer “deep discounts” to patients who would be willing to drive the long distance to Newport Beach. I started getting calls from patients and doctors asking me to “match” the Newport price, which I declined to do. I don’t mind a little competition, I just want it to occur on a level playing field. The patients from Newport Beach won’t come to my lab to save money because their doctors refer them to the lab where they are financially invested. Since my doctors have no financial interest in my lab, they are tempted to send patients where it the cheapest.

Needless to say, this concerned me. I have always felt “collegial” to the labs that are around me and have no problem sending a patient to lab that’s closer to their work or home. But this situation with Newport had moved us from colleagues to competitors. I looked into what I could do to “level” the playing field but discovered I had very few options. I would sigh when patient would come in with a Newport slip, or when a doctor would call about a patient’s x-rays only to discover they had gone to the Newport lab. Time went by, the doctors divested themselves and eventually the lab was sold to a gal I know and considered a colleague. Relieved, I hoped that she would see the “error” of their “dual tier” fee policy and do the right thing. Unfortunately she didn’t, she couldn’t.

Not long ago, another lab moved into her area, giving her some stiff competition. As the economy in Orange County lagged, she eventually had to relocate to another area. The new location did not solve her financial problems and yesterday was her last day of business. I stopped by her lab today to see if she had anything for sale that might be useful to me. When I left, I shook her hand and told her that I was sorry things didn’t work out for her. But I wasn’t really sorry. Inside I was happy. After all these years I was vindicated. But why did I feel bad for her? Why was it so hard to enjoy this “victory”? I remembered the scene in the movie “You’ve Got Mail” where the female character verbally rips into her competitor, then experiences the regret that often goes along with verbal outbursts. I remembered the line from that movie, “It’s not personal, it’s business!” Even though my competition had been defeated, I felt bad that a friend had failed, had been hurt, and would continue to hurt over the next weeks, months, even years.

As I write this, I’m wondering if there isn’t a way we can compete with each other and still remain colleagues. Many of us succeed in doing this. But some don’t. The rules of business don’t always mesh cleanly with the rules of collegiality. I do feel bad for my colleague, the same way I think an athlete feels bad when their arch rival forfeits an event due to an injury. It’s nice to win but it feels so much better to win in a fair fight. And when you lose in a fair fight, it motivates you to work harder, do better, come back to fight another day. In an unfair fight, there are no winners, only losers.

The quote at the beginning of this story is from my favorite author. His words ran over and over in my mind today as I drove home from my colleague’s now defunct lab. We are all in this together. In the long run….


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