Monday, November 20, 2017

The Wonders of GPS

My wife and I wanted to visit the Riverside photography museum, seventy miles away.

During this time there was a 50-50 chance of a hotel call, but only half require a visit. Our luck didn’t hold, and my phone rang after forty miles; someone was vomiting, not a visit I can stall. When I asked directions to the address from my iPhone, it claimed no such location existed. Since this was an insurance call, the patient was not an English-speaker. She had phoned the insurance office in Miami whose dispatcher (also not a native English speaker) phoned me. Addresses often become garbled.

I called the patient’s number and heard a busy signal, always a bad sign on today’s phones. I was forced to call the insurance number, spending a few minutes on hold before reaching a different dispatcher who spent several minutes researching before turning up the correct address.

Then the iPhone GPS worked its magic, laying out a very specific route to an obscure area near Long Beach thirty miles away. While I took care of the patient, she looked up a nearby restaurant on an iPhone App. We ate lunch and returned home.

Two days later we repeated the drive, this time successfully. Most photography museums are art galleries, but Riverside’s is part of the University of California, so it delivers large dose of history with displays of old cameras and old photographs. Driving home with the rush hour approaching, I kept an eye on the iPhone GPS, marveling at its accuracy at predicting freeway jams.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Suitophobia, Part 2

The only American doctors who don’t worry about malpractice suits are fresh out of training. They believe that practicing good medicine will keep them safe. Once they are sued, they join the worriers.

Fifteen percent of surgeons are sued every year. It’s twenty percent for high-risk subspecialties like neurosurgery and cardiac surgery. Family doctors like me do better -- only five percent per year. This means that every doctor is sued sooner or later. Mostly we win, and almost no one pays a penny even if we lose, but it’s a miserable experience. I work hard to find material for this blog, but you’ll never read about my suit.

One reason doctors are sued for malpractice is malpractice, but plenty of other reasons exist.

Hollywood generally presents doctors in a good light, but in the dozen or so movies about medical malpractice, the doctor character is always evil. Hollywood generally presents lawyers in a bad light, but in those same movies about malpractice, the victim's lawyer is always the hero. 

I once wrote a courtroom drama about a surgeon who was committing malpractice – doing hysterectomies strictly for the money. But he had a pleasant personality, so patients liked him (in the movies these doctors are always sleazy); he was a skillful surgeon, so there were no pitiful victims to testify, and he had a smart lawyer, so he won. I thought the story was deliciously ironic, but the number of editors who agree is holding steady at zero.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Why I Discourage Appointments

“The guest will be in the room at six o’clock and would like to see you then,” announced the concierge at two o’clock.

Tactfully, I suggested that she not make appointments without consulting me. The Torrance Marriott is eighteen miles away, and I didn't want to drive across town during the rush hour to see someone who wasn’t sick enough to leave work. I phoned to tell the guest that I could come immediately or at nine p.m. She chose nine.

Arriving ten minutes early, I knocked, and no one responded. Reached by cell phone, the guest reminded me that the visit was scheduled for nine. She was dining nearby, she added, and would hurry back. Twenty minutes passed before she arrived, but during that time another hotel phoned with a visit on my way home, so it looked like a good evening.

The guest arrived, apologized, and described her problem, a minor eye irritation. After I finished she mentioned that her husband felt under the weather. This is usually pleasant news because this couple had travel insurance. My routine is to ask the patient to phone the insurance to obtain approval, so I could care for him and be paid. But obtaining authorization takes time. It was late, and I was anxious to see the next patient who seemed genuinely ill, so I treated the husband’s cold gratis and hurried off.  

Wednesday, November 8, 2017


“I’m Doctor Oppenheim….”

“Welcome to the Intercontinental, Doctor Oppenheim. Are you checking in?”

Damn. Another employee who doesn’t recognize me. This happens in hotels that have called for decades. Who knows what she’ll tell a guest who asks for help?

I don’t market myself, but years ago I decided to hand a copy of my latest book to general managers of my regular hotels and explain, modestly, that writing allowed me free time to serve their guests. They listened politely, made flattering comments, and went back to work. It was clear many had no idea who I was. My tenth visit, to the downtown Hilton, was my last. 

“What do you mean ‘serve our guests?’” snapped the GM. “We don’t have a hotel doctor. We don’t want a hotel doctor. You’re going to get a letter from our lawyer!” He snatched my book and marched off. I was a familiar figure to Hilton staff, having made over 100 visits, but I never made another.

That was my first encounter with the epidemic of suitophobia that rages among hotel managers, compelling them to forbid staff from helping sick guests except by getting them off the premises. At any given time, about ten percent are affected. Most recover after a few years, but in the meantime both guests and hotel doctors suffer. I made over 600 visits to the J.W. Marriott in Century City before calls abruptly stopped. I learned the reason from concierges who swore me to secrecy when they snuck me in to see a particularly demanding guest.  

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Shots Guests Need and Shots They Request

Long ago a man phoned to inform me that he was on his honeymoon and would like a shot of testosterone. I explained that this was unlikely to solve his problem. 

He did not want to leave any stone unturned, and I’m happy to make a housecall to deliver a harmless injection, but I couldn’t because I didn’t carry testosterone. I bought some on my next drug order. Sadly, I never received another request. I discarded the vial after it expired and never replaced it.

Also long ago, a woman whose hot flashes were acting up asked for an estrogen injection. I explained that pills work as well, but she was willing to pay for an injection which I couldn’t provide. I ordered estrogen, but no one has asked for it since.

I carry two sorts of medication: those guests need and those they ask for. The second category is tricky as these examples illustrate. Another: bereaved guests or those in great emotional distress often beg for a shot to “put them out.” Unfortunately, although movie doctors use it regularly, there is no injection that makes you go to sleep.

B12 remains a hotel doctor’s only reliable moneymaking placebo. I’ve never encountered an illness that required it, but requests arrive several times a year. Celebrities often ask for an injection before a performance, always a thrill.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

How a Hotel Doctor Collects His Fee

Many guests pay cash; most foreigners have travel insurance, and I accept credit cards. Technology makes this easy although the company takes about six percent for the convenience. Using a phone, I dial a computer whose automated voice instructs me to enter half a dozen codes (my bank number, my merchant number, the credit card number, the fee…).

In the past I used the room phone until I noticed guests looking uneasy and remembered that hotels charge for phone calls. Now I use my cell phone, an awkward alternative because the small keypad encourages mistakes. At the end, the computer announces its approval and recites an authorization code which I dutifully copy.

Occasionally it denies approval – not by telling me the card is bad or that I’ve entered the wrong number but by announcing cheerfully, “please hold on while we transfer you to a customer service representative.” Hearing this, I immediately hang up because the company charges anytime someone speaks to customer service. I then dial again and re-enter the numbers. Sometimes this works. If it doesn’t, there is a scramble as guests search for another card or their wallets.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Most Common Phrase a Hotel Doctor Hears

That would be “Sorry for the mess.” Sometimes I hear it as I step into the room, more often when I look for a place to set down my paperwork because all surfaces are piled with discarded clothes, toilet articles, food wrappers, luggage.

A messy room does not greatly embarrass guests. This is not the case when, after introducing myself and listening to the complaints, I put a thermometer in a guest’s mouth and announce that I will wash my hands. That invariably produces a minor panic as someone hurries into the bathroom to clear away another mess and search, sometimes in vain, for a clean towel.