Tuesday, June 16, 2009

How I Became America's Only Fulltime Hotel Doctor

Every few years I open my Los Angeles Times to learn the paper has, once again, discovered the housecall. Americans yearn for it, I read, and a clever doctor is about to satisfy that need.

The reporter interviews an entrepreneurial physician (different every time) who describes the sufferings of hotel guests forced to stumble through unfamiliar streets searching for an emergency room or the hardship of the housebound elderly. He and his physician recruits will scurry about the city delivering care to a grateful clientele. Despite charging a fraction of an emergency room’s fee, they plan to make a great deal of money.

We take for granted the news is accurate, so it’s a shock to read about something we’ve experienced personally – and realize the reporter has gotten it all wrong. None of these articles mention me. Yet I am not only the busiest hotel doctor in Los Angeles, I’ve made more visits than my competitors combined; over 15,000.

I know how these articles come to be written. Given his assignment, the reporter consults the avalanche of public relations material that pours into every newspaper. Finding a release about a doctor who makes housecalls (there’s always one) he phones its subject, does the interview, and writes. Sometimes reporting is easy.

Had he worked harder, querying local hotels and travel agencies, he would have learned about me; he might not have heard his subject’s name at all. After every Times article, I write the reporter to announce my existence and point out his errors (the fees quoted are purely imaginary; housecall doctors do not visit the uninsured), adding that I can provide more interesting stories as well as information that is actually accurate. No reporter responds, and in a few years another article features the same fanciful material from the mouth of a different doctor who is never me.

I began making hotel visits around 1980, but I was not an overnight success. 1990 had passed by the time I acquired enough clients to quit my other jobs. I was the only fulltime hotel doctor in the country, and there will never be another. This achievement owes something to my kindly bedside manner, nothing to business acumen, but most to the absence of competition. Until I arrived on the scene, hotel doctors confined themselves to luxury establishments such as the Bel Air or Beverly Hills Hotel. While it’s fun to visit rich and famous people in exclusive hotels, these doctors did it as a sideline, so all gave priority to their office practice. They also enjoyed a normal social life. Since calls invariably arrived when they were doing something else, old-time hotel doctors charged breathtaking fees to compensate for the aggravation.

I never had my own practice, and reading is my major leisure activity. I also enjoy writing about health; by the 1970s magazines were buying my articles, so stopping whatever I was doing to make a housecall was no inconvenience. Even that bane of a doctor’s life, the middle-of-the night call, didn’t bother me. With no office patients waiting, I could sleep late. Traffic was light. Parking was easy. Guests were grateful.

Mostly, however, they weren’t rich because I was soliciting the great mass of mid-level hotels. That was no problem; my needs were modest. I had bought a small house in West Los Angeles before the 1970s explosion in real estate prices; my mortgage cost $418 a month, which I could earn in two eight-hour shifts in an urgent-care clinic. My wife and I drove Honda Civics.

You might think the combination of lower fees and quick response ensured my success, but I faced a problem that still exists: hotel management doesn’t care. Providing a doctor produces no revenue for the hotel; in any case Americans don’t demand one. Calling 911 takes care of guests who seem seriously ill. The remainder rarely complain if told to go to an emergency room.

My marketing also lacked urgency. I was too shy to tour hotel lobbies, dispensing my card and the promise of a tip. Being a writer, I wrote: dignified letters on deluxe stationery offering my service twenty-four hours a day to about 150 general managers. I wrote every few months, addressing every manager by name (this meant I had to phone every hotel beforehand), working hard to rephrase and personalize each letter. It was boring work, but I had plenty of free time.

Mostly, the letters vanished into a void, but now and then they caught a manager’s attention. By the end of the eighties a dozen hotels called regularly. Then something happened. Maybe a critical mass of hotel employees grew familiar with me, or general managers decided a house doctor was a good idea. Within a few years, calls quadrupled to over two thousand a year. I stopped taking clinic jobs to pay my bills.

I was a fulltime hotel doctor. Like most life changes, it did not so much solve my problems as exchange them for others. Local doctors began to notice this mass of potential patients, none of whom were poor. Entrepreneurs across the nation decided they could make themselves known to big city hotels, send moonlighters to care for guests, and prosper by keeping part of the fee. Competition arrived. My income rose, but so did my stress level.