Mobile Doc Jim Andersen Takes His Shingle to His Patients with An Office on Wheels

updated 05/23/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/23/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Dr. James Andersen's cramped office—desk, filing cabinet, a waiting room with three chairs—is nothing to rave about, but his patients think it tops Trapper John's on TV. No wonder. The Florida doc has put it all on wheels. Four days a week Dr. Andersen, 36, hooks his creaky 40-foot, 9,000-pound trailer to his green, six-wheeled truck and hits the mobile home parks on a 70-mile route between Fort Lauderdale and the Everglades. "Family practitioners should get out where the people are," Andersen insists. "Even doctors only six or seven miles away might as well be on the moon if you are old or don't drive."

Dr. Andersen, driving into retirement communities like Sunshine City (pop. 1,000) and Hacienda Village (pop. 60), is a welcome sight for his mostly elderly patients. And his prices—$21 per visit for adults and $16 for children—are about two-thirds of the prevailing office fees in south Florida. The doc keeps his overhead low. "I found the trailer for $6,000 and the truck for much less. Counting the equipment I bought, I was in business for $13,000." Some of his medical colleagues object to his revolutionary approach. "They said the concept wouldn't work financially. They're wrong."

Covering the same route each week and servicing five communities, the doctor begins office hours Tuesday at 9 a.m., pulling into his first stop, Park City, and plugging into the electrical system. With the help of nurse Eileen Barney and medical assistant Lil Robinson, he opens the door of the trailer, sets up a sturdy aluminum ladder, and lets his patients in. Often they keep coming till 11 p.m. His co-workers' only complaint is that their boss takes so much time with each patient. The patients have no complaints.

Andersen thinks talking is just as important as the medicine. "If a patient is always tired, it's only when the doctor takes time to talk that he can find the cause. The most common causes of fatigue are anxiety and depression."

He is no stranger to either. Born in Cleveland, where his father is in real estate, he graduated from Ohio State medical school in 1972 with lofty ideals. But after finishing his residency in family medicine at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital in 1975, he found himself in doubt as to his career prospects. "I had this urge to make money," Andersen recalls. "One way was to sign on as a salaried associate with an established office of doctors and save to buy my way into the firm." His experience demoralized him. One doctor offered a tricky, fine-print contract; another finished a fifth of brandy on his daily rounds.

Andersen was so discouraged he dropped out of medicine, bought a 45-foot sailboat, and chartered it for living expenses. But medicine was always on his mind. He remembered a mobile coronary care unit he had worked with at Ohio State. The unit visited poor neighborhoods. Applying the same theory to mobile trailer homes, he took the money from his sailing earnings and set himself up in business. He was a laughingstock in medical circles when he started in September 1977. But his success with more than 2,000 patients has silenced the critics. "Last October the American Academy of Family Physicians sent back my proposed paper on mobile medicine with a form letter," he reports. "Now they're asking me to write the same paper and make a personal appearance." In January Andersen was appointed clinical assistant professor of family medicine of the University of Miami Medical School. Says the chairman of the department, Dr. Lynn Carmichael: "We endorse his innovative system. He's out there where he's needed."

Today Dr. Andersen is enjoying the fruits of his labors. He recently bought a two-bedroom condo in Fort Lauderdale, where he docks his new boat, a 35-foot Chesapeake skipjack. Recently he bought a sturdier 45-foot trailer rebuilt by a patient. A bachelor ("Marriage has never been a driving force in my life"), Andersen spends his nonmedical hours on his boat, on his bicycle and in reading, especially World War II histories.

He's satisfied with his current income. Last year he grossed $72,000. Nurse Barney, just retired, says that "after he's paid his income tax, his help, supplies, lab, etc., I figure he makes what a schoolteacher does. But he's happy."

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