Saturday, December 10, 2011

Looking for Help

“Your blog is funny, and you’ve got a great thing going with hotels. I wonder if we can work together.”

Flattery is always welcome. The caller was a young doctor who explained that he was starting a concierge practice and needed someone to cover when he was away. Naturally, he was available to cover for me.

I’m always looking for help. Hotel doctors keep each other at arm’s length because, while it’s considered rude to solicit another doctor’s patients, soliciting a hotel is just business, and I don’t want them setting foot in mine. Luckily, I have a friendly relationship with one competitor, but it’s awkward if he leaves town or has an important engagement. Doctors in practice can’t help me because they’re stuck in the office. Residents or retired doctors can’t help because they’d have to buy malpractice insurance whose premium would dwarf any income I’d provide.

We met at a local restaurant. Already familiar with me from my blog, he did most of the talking, describing the superb service he provided his concierge patients. As you may know, concierge doctors accept no insurance. In exchange for a large annual retainer or other cash arrangement, they provide enhanced care: immediate availability, leisurely office visits with no waiting, 24 hour phone service, and house calls. Visits and house calls often cost extra, and none of this money covers tests, x-rays, specialists, and hospitalization, so it’s a service aimed at wealthy patients.

I learned that he worked several shifts a week at an urgent care clinic, so concierge medicine wasn’t paying all his bills yet. He denied any interest in hotel doctoring, but he would have been foolish to admit otherwise. We parted, promising to keep in touch.

I planned to see a Dodger game on July 4, a few weeks later. One of my brothers has season tickets; these are among the few times we get together, and I look forward to them. My hotel doctor colleague was attending a wedding at the same time. He was agreeable to covering but warned that he might have trouble getting away. I decided it was time to give the concierge doctor a chance.

I usually call-forward my number to my colleague, but he knows how to deal with hotel guests. For this new doctor, I decided to answer the phone myself. It rang as we were driving to the stadium. A woman’s child was suffering a severe cough and fever. She wanted a visit as soon as possible. I called the concierge doctor.

“They’re in Hawthorne,” I explained. “It’s far, so I quoted three hundred dollars.”

He sounded shocked “Three hundred dollars!! Doctor Oppenheim! It’s a holiday!”

“Right,” I said. “No freeway traffic.”

“Doctors don’t work on holidays. Patients understand that. They know they have to pay extra.”

“And that would be…?”

“My patients pay six hundred dollars.”

“That’s not in the cards. Do you want to make the visit or not?”

“Of course, I do. But I’m celebrating the holiday with my family like everyone else. I have to earn a reasonable fee if I get called away. Patients don’t object.”

“I’ll take care of this another way.” I hung up, furious. Before ordering my brother to drive me home, I phoned the patient’s mother. The child didn’t seem dangerously ill, so I persuaded her to wait a few hours. That solved the immediate problem but ruined the evening because I spent the time worrying about a catastrophe occurring while I indulged my frivolous love of baseball. When I phoned after the game, the child was sleeping, and the mother wanted to wait until morning. It turned out he had a routine cold.

I’m still looking for help.

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