Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Difficult Christmas

A woman began vomiting the morning after Christmas dinner.

People blame upset stomachs on their last meal, but mostly these are viral infections. Although miserable, they rarely last long. Doctors enjoy short-lived illnesses because we get the credit when they go away.

She hadn’t vomited for several hours and was already feeling better. As I was congratulating myself on an easy visit, I heard the unmistakable sound of retching from the bathroom. This was her husband, the woman explained, adding that her mother and two year-old were also ill.

When the husband appeared, I took care of him. Unlike his wife, he welcomed an injection in addition to antivomiting pills which I also gave the mother as well as medication for her cramps and diarrhea. The child had diarrhea and little interest in eating but did not look ill. I limited myself to dietary advice and left my phone number.

When I phoned the following day, the husband informed me that the family was fine although everyone had been vomiting all night.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Warning: This Blog May Vanish

I suspect this blog will disappear on January 15, 2013. That’s when Medscape shuts down its E-mail which I’ve been using since the 1990s. At first, I assumed this would be no problem. I would log on using my other E-mail addresses, but they don’t work.

Innocently, I went to a Google forum to ask how to transfer the blog to another E-mail. Almost immediately a responder explained that I must use the permissions wizard – “carefully.” My heart sank as I read an entire page of instructions, links, and warnings plus the suggestion that it works best using two computers and two browsers. I didn’t understand.

My current plan is to recreate the blog which will probably require a different name, so keep your eyes peeled.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Bad Credit Cards

A member of an Argentine soccer team fell while roller staking, wrenching his ankle.  A doctor from their travel insurer in Buenos Aires determined that he needed an orthopedist but that this could wait until office hours the following day. However, the doctor wanted someone to examine him that evening, so my phone rang.

The team was staying in Long Beach, 35 miles away, but the rush-hour had passed, and the agency did not object to the extra fee. This was International Assistance. I’ve made 896 of its visits, but after an ownership change, it became extremely slow to pay. Losing patience, I insisted it give me a credit card number, so I could pay myself. This is always a critical request, because some agencies refuse and disappear from my radar. But International Assistance agreed.

As soon as I hung up, I remembered that IA’s current credit card had expired in August. When I called back, the dispatcher put me on hold to consult her superior. After a few minutes, she returned with a new number.

I phoned the credit card company and entered my identification and the credit card number only to hear the computer declare: “Do not honor! Do not honor!” I phoned IA again, awaited the consultation, and received another card. “Do not honor!” intoned the computer a second time.

“Invalid credit card number” I heard on my third attempt. This turned out to be my mistake; in my increasing frustration, I made an error entering her third number. After correcting it, I heard the satisfying: “Approved” following by a confirmation number. Insurance agencies often give me bad credit cards. I suspect their business is as competitive as mine, so many are in perilous financial condition.

My patient was reclining on a couch, an ice pack on his ankle, his teammates gathered around. The ankle was massively swollen, and he was in pain. Waiting would not have caused permanent harm, but people with painful injuries deserve quick attention.

Fortunately, IA is an agency that takes my advice even when it costs money, so his companions took him to an emergency room to deal with fractures of both leg bones. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Adventures in Parking

In parts of Los Angeles, especially downtown and the Sunset Strip, street parking is impossible. I dislike turning my car over to an attendant because it can take fifteen minutes to retrieve it from the parking garage. Also, although it’s irrational, I’m willing to pay $15 for a movie or book but not for twenty minutes of parking. I try to leave my car near the entrance, a small area where only VIPs are permitted. When the attendant doesn’t recognize me (“Welcome to the Biltmore; are you checking in?...”), I do not accept the voucher he holds out, explaining “I’m the hotel doctor visiting a sick guest. They let me park.” This sometimes works, but if he insists, I take it. Sometimes the hotel will validate, but it’s unpredictable.

Searching for a spot on the street, I follow the position of the sun as closely as a sailor because I must park in shade. I keep extra supplies in the car, and an hour in blazing sun will melt my pills and ruin batteries. I don’t mind walking a few blocks if I find free street parking (and I know all the secret places), but since I wear a suit and tie, hot weather discourages this. Rain does the same because carrying an umbrella is awkward in addition to my doctor bag and clipboard.

One advantage of wee-hour calls is that parking restrictions vanish and valets grow somnolent or disappear entirely. I’ve never felt in danger, but downtown parking remains problematic because homeless men invariably rush up and offer to watch my car.

My most upsetting parking experience occurred during a visit to the Ramada in Culver City at 4 a.m. I left my car at the deserted entrance, cared for the guest, and returned to find a parking ticket on my windshield. The hotel’s driveway was private property, so ticketing a car requires phoning the police. Looking around the lobby I noticed a security officer looking innocently away. There was nothing to be done.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Why I Am a Patriot

Hot summer days remind me of why I love America. We appreciate air conditioning. Citizens of most other nations consider it unhealthy. They tolerate it as an exotic American quirk, but as soon as someone in the party falls ill, the air conditioning goes off.

Wearing a suit and tie, I conduct my business in suffocatingly hot hotel rooms. When I extol the benefits of machine-cooled air to foreigners, they listen politely with an expression identical to that of Americans hearing me explain that antibiotics will not cure their bronchitis.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Satisfying and Unsatisfying Problems

A guest interrupted my questioning to dash into the bathroom, and I heard the sounds of gagging as she vomited.

While waiting, I took a vial of ondansetron from my bag and began filling a syringe. After a few minutes I heard the toilet flush.

“Why don’t I give the vomiting injection now?” I said when she reappeared. “You’ll probably want one.” She agreed with enthusiasm.

I finished my exam, made a diagnosis – the common stomach virus – and delivered advice and a packet of pills. I also went to the ice machine down the corridor and filled her ice bucket, so that she could suck on the chips for the next few hours. She was very grateful and equally grateful the following morning when I phoned to learn she had recovered. Most stomach viruses don’t last long, a day or so.

Vomiting and diarrhea are usually satisfying problems for a doctor. Most skin problems are easy. I rarely have a problem with earaches, backaches, minor injuries, common eye inflammations, even most urinary and gynecological complaints. A hotel doctor’s patients are healthier than average, but serious problems occur. It turns out that these are not necessarily “hard.” When I encounter someone with chest pain, eye pain, sudden weakness, difficulty breathing, or an injury that may be serious I know what to do. At the end patients receive the care they should receive, and we both know it. That’s a satisfying feeling.

What is the most unsatisfying problem a doctor faces? Rare diseases? Puzzling symptoms? Neurotics? Drug addiction? None of these. Most doctors would agree that it’s the common viral upper respiratory infection. About twenty percent of everyone who consults a doctor suffers. Hotel guests are no exception. No one tries to educate me about heart attacks, but everyone is an expert on these. Patients tell me how they acquired theirs (“I got caught in the rain”), or why (“I’m not eating right; my resistance is low”), the proper treatment (“my doctor gives me a Z-pak”), and what will happen if I disagree (“It’ll go to my chest”). These explanations are always wrong.

You catch a virus from another person. The illness lasts from a few days to a few weeks. If you see a doctor, he or she will prescribe an antibiotic at least half the time. The antibiotic is useless. Doctors know this but prescribe them anyway.

No patient agrees. “I have a good doctor,” they reply. “He would never do that.”

My response is that prescribing useless antibiotics is not necessarily a sign of incompetence. It’s so common that good doctors do it. One expert calls this avalanche of unnecessary antibiotics one of our greatest environmental pollutants. It’s producing a growing race of “superbugs:” germs resistant to all antibiotics.

Here’s a professional secret. When doctors chat among themselves, we often bring up the subject. Challenged by colleagues like me, prescribers never claim that antibiotics cure these infections. They know they’re a placebo, but they respond with a powerful argument. “When I’m finished, I want patients to be happy, and they are happy. One hundred percent. What’s your experience?”

It’s not as good. When I deliver sympathy, advice, and perhaps a cough remedy to patients with a respiratory infection, most seem genuinely grateful, but a solid minority drop hints (“Isn’t there something to knock this out….?” “My regular doctor gives me…..” “I have a meeting tomorrow, and I can’t be sick…”).

Doctors love helping patients. That’s why we went into medicine. Equally important, we want you to feel “helped,” and we are super-sensitive to your gratitude. Almost everyone is too polite to argue with a doctor, but we can detect the tiniest trace of disappointment as you leave. It hurts us. Every doctor knows that he can eliminate this pain and produce heartfelt gratitude by prescribing an antibiotic. This is terribly tempting, and after a few dozen or few hundred or few thousand disappointed patients, most doctors give in.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Avoiding the Rush Hour

A guest with a respiratory infection was staying in a Whittier hotel, thirty miles away. The call arrived at 5:00. Driving sixty miles in rush hour traffic is an experience I prefer to avoid if the problem isn’t urgent. I told the insurance dispatcher I would arrive between 8 and 9.

Usually I explain that “I won’t get out of the office till 7.” That’s an excuse patients usually accept. This time I slipped up and merely explained that I didn’t want to get caught in the rush hour. This is less acceptable and, sure enough, the patient cancelled in favor of going to an emergency room. I felt bad, but that turned out to save me from a difficult evening.

At 6 o’clock, a guest in West Hollywood announced that he was having a gout attack. The rush hour was in full swing, but West Hollywood is only five miles away. Before I walked out the door, the phone rang again, and I agreed to see a Swede suffering flu symptoms at the Sheraton in Santa Monica. The Sheraton is ten miles from West Hollywood and not a convenient drive, but I hoped traffic would have diminished.

Gout is an easy visit, and I carry the treatment, so the visit ended happily for everyone. After a passable drive, I arrived at the Sheraton where I answered a call from the Hong Kong office of Cathay-Pacific Airlines. I care for their crew in Los Angeles, and they are a joy to work with. Being young, they suffer simple ailments; all are Asian but speak good English; best of all, every request comes with a credit card number, so I don’t have to send a bill. A mild downside is that every visit also comes with a sheaf of documents evaluating the employee’s fitness to work.

After caring for the Swede’s flu, I drove ten miles to the Airport Hilton to treat a flight attendant’s sore leg and fill out paperwork. I arrived home at 10:30, weary but pleased at the night’s work. No sooner had I taken my phone off call-forwarding than it rang with news that an elderly lady at a Sunset Strip hotel was ill. Not everyone who wants a doctor needs a doctor, and I often convince guests that a visit isn’t necessary. I yearned to do that in this case, but she was vomiting, not a symptom patients can tolerate.

In the room, I was prepared to diagnose a routine stomach virus until I pulled back the covers and saw her swollen abdomen.

“Is this how your stomach usually looks?” I asked.

She denied it. She also had more pain than I expected, and I heard loud intestinal noises through my stethoscope. It seemed like a bowel obstruction, I explained. She needed to go to the hospital. Immediately she reconsidered my question, remembering that she was constipated, a condition that often made her abdomen swell.

Hearing they must go to the hospital, guests often work hard to change my mind, but I persisted. She went off in an ambulance, and I left hoping I’d made the right decision (doctors worry about these things). I phoned the next day to learn she had been admitted to Cedars-Sinai where she remained several days.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


As long as they do good work, doctors assume patients will remain loyal, but hotel doctors learn not to be so trusting. Helping sick guests produces no income for the hotel. Ninety percent are not terribly ill; if rebuffed they rarely make a fuss, so the manager never hears about them. Paramedics deal with emergencies. Years may pass before a GM encounters an imbroglio that only a doctor on the spot can defuse; I’ve recounted a few. Although the best marketing tool, they never happen when I need them.

So how does a doctor keep a hotel’s loyalty? You might think that practicing good medicine is the best P.R. That’s not necessarily so because, ironically, people take for granted that doctors are good. In fact, most are competent, and that includes my competitors. Patients are usually grateful after seeing me, and over thirty years I’ve acquired plenty of flattering letters, but when patients feel the urge to tell the world about a doctor, they are generally less happy. When a GM hears from a guest, it’s almost always a complaint.

Assuring bellmen and concierges of $20 for every referral is a long tradition. It’s illegal, and my last competitor who definitely took advantage lost his license in 2003, but hotel staff continue to drop hints.

Other doctors tour hotels to extol their virtues to the staff, but I don’t. Three or four times a year I write to a hundred GMs but stop once a hotel starts calling. I dislike merchants who keep telling me how much they love my business, so I assume this feeling is general. Perhaps fifty hotels call during a typical year, but I doubt if five GMs know me by sight.

In 1994, I bumped into the doctor who serves a dozen crème de la crème luxury hotels around Beverly Hills. As we talked shop, he mentioned that he knew most of his general managers since he encountered them at social engagements. That’s a marketing tool I can’t match. It turns out that, when a hotel opens, he chats up the manager, and matters are settled. I send my usual letter of introduction, but I never acquire a new hotel in his territory.

During that conversation, he grumbled that a colleague who covered for him recently had left a business card at every hotel. I sympathized, adding that I’d be happy to cover, and I promised not to solicit afterward. Since my leisure time activities are reading and writing, I rarely decline his calls, so we’re both pleased with the arrangement. I still have no answer to the question at the beginning, but at least someone else is responsible for keeping the loyalty of many hotels I visit.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"Welcome to the Biltmore. Are You Checking In?"

That is not my favorite greeting, because it means the valet doesn’t recognize me. My response is always: “I’m the hotel doctor. I’ll be here twenty minutes. They hold my car.”

That’s my mantra to parking attendants, delivered a thousand times and followed by a moment of tension. Will he smile, accept my key, and park my car nearby? Or will he hand over a voucher, jump behind the wheel, and drive off into the bowels of the parking structure?

I have no problem tipping attendants, but I hate paying ten to twenty dollars to park. Accepting the voucher makes that a possibility, so I repeat the mantra, hoping he will reconsider or appeal to his boss who might know me or decide an elderly doctor with his bag deserves VIP status.

Once I accept, my next step, after caring for a guest, is to ask the desk clerk or concierge to validate. Sometimes they comply, but now and then…

“Sorry. The hotel doesn’t handle parking. It’s a separate company.” Hotels often outsource parking, but luxury hotels always accommodate me. Chains are unpredictable, even those where I go regularly. But once I hear this, I pay because I have a rule against arguing with hotel staff. Validation sometimes requires only that the employee scribble “comp – hotel doctor” on the voucher. Once, when refused, I scribbled it myself, and it worked, but I don’t do it. The chance of getting caught is very low, but the consequences are so humiliating that it’s not worth the risk.

After thirty years, I know the nearest street parking for every hotel; if it isn’t hot or raining, I’m willing to walk a few blocks. Downtown is a problem because, even during wee hours, homeless men hurry up, offering to watch my car. In the immense wasteland near the airport and hip entertainment sections of the Sunset Strip and Hollywood, street parking is often impossible. As with so many amenities, Beverly Hills is a pleasant exception.

I loved the temporary handicapped pass I used for six months after breaking my leg in 2003. Its benefits are no secret to the able-bodied; it turns out that eleven percent of Los Angeles drivers have one including not a few running the treadmills at my gym.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Human Nature, Part 2

Cynicism is a cheap substitute for sophistication, but I find it as tempting as most people... The lady just phoned, full of apologies, and we're working on ways to get the money. It hasn't arrived, but I assume it will.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Human Nature

An elderly Mexican psychoanalyst was attending a psychoanalytic convention, but a cold was making her so miserable that she wanted to return home early.

This seemed an excellent call in many ways. It arrived during the evening rush hour, but the Royal Palace was only two miles away. It was my first visit to that hotel, always a delight, and I planned to introduce myself to the management. Finally, the lady’s stuffy ears dominated her concerns, so she probably wouldn’t demand useless antibiotics which Latin American doctors prescribe for colds as often as we do.

Everything proceeded smoothly. I finished my traditional lecture on preventing ear pain when flying (generous use of nasal sprays); she expressed gratitude and laid down an American Express card.

American Express charges a larger service fee than other credit cards, so some companies that handle transactions don’t cover them. That includes mine, but I wasn’t concerned. So far everyone has had cash or another credit card, but on learning that I only accept Visa or Master Card, she expressed dismay. She only used American Express, she explained. Her plane left the next morning, and all she had was cab fare.

While I considered my next move, she snatched the phone, dialed the front desk, and poured out her distress. The doctor they recommended wouldn’t take her credit card; she had no money, and she needed help. I cringed at this terrible P.R. She wasn’t complaining about me, but it’s never good for a hotel to hear a guest having problems with the doctor. Luxury hotels will advance money and add it to the bill, but the Royal Palace, while comfortable, was not in that class. The desk clerk suggested she find an ATM.

Long ago, I drove a guest in search of an ATM, and I’ll never do it again. Begging my forgiveness, she swore that when she returned to Mexico City she would phone with the number of an acceptable credit card. I had no other suggestion, so I brushed off her apologies, and we parted on good terms.

That was several weeks ago; I don’t expect to hear from her.

My practice where almost no one see me a second time and everyone lives far away is a supreme test of integrity, and it’s discouraging how few measure up. Guests have already agreed on the fee before I arrive, so it’s rare that I leave unpaid. When this happens, guests are invariably upset and embarrassed. Once home and aware that there will be no unpleasant consequences if they don’t pay, only about twenty percent come across.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A No-lunch Day

The Langham called 11 a.m., a perfect time. I was finishing at the gym; I could shower, make the visit, and return home for lunch.

The gym is near the 405 freeway, a few miles from my home. It’s not my usual route for the 25 mile drive to Pasadena, being slightly further, but I decided to experiment. A mile after I set out, traffic stopped cold as far as the eye could see.

That’s when I remembered we are adding a single northbound lane to the 405 through Sepulveda Pass. There’s no room, so workers must rebuild every overpass, carve out and reinforce cliffs, and heap up dirt to widen the roadway. This six-mile addition will cost a billion dollars. I cannot think how much mass transportation a billion dollars would buy if there were any political support.

After fifteen minutes of creeping, I reached an exit and took old Sepulveda Boulevard past the construction. While driving, I answered a call from an insurance service and agreed to see a Brazilian boy with a fever in Huntington Beach. Huntington Beach is in Orange County, forty-five miles from my house. It could have been worse; it’s the same distance from Pasadena.

The Langham guest was a Washington Post reporter with a respiratory infection. He was covering a local convention, so the paper was paying for his room at the very posh Langham, but it wasn’t paying his medical expenses, so he had phoned several times before deciding on a visit. I delivered advice and medication before proceeding on my way.

The knowledge that I’ll miss a meal stimulates my appetite, so I suck on hard candy from a supply I carry. I never grab a bite at a hotel because I love eating and prefer to remain hungry and take care of obligations, so I can relax and enjoy it.

After shaking my hand, the Brazilian father reminded me that I had visited him a month earlier. Over most of the US, travel insurers send clients to clinics or emergency rooms. Having a doctor appear at their door is more pleasant, so Los Angeles travelers lose their inhibitions about asking for help, and I see many repeat customers. After examining his son, I explained this it wasn’t necessary to give him a cold shower for his 101 temperature. He would feel bad for a few days and then recover; I handed out four packets of Tylenol.

It was after 3 when I pulled into my garage and answered a call from the Westin at the airport. This was one of those what-might-have-been calls because I’d passed the freeway exit only blocks from the Westin half an hour earlier. I retraced the route to care for a lady with a painful eye, returning in time for supper.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The American Way

“This is AXA insurance about the patient you saw last month, Mrs. Diaz. We are asking you to accept a lower payment. In exchange, we list you as a preferred provider.” The offer was for less than half what I billed. I declined. AXA would eventually pay my regular rate although a few months would pass.

AXA sells travel insurance to Latin Americans. Its US agency and a dozen others phone me to make housecalls. Afterward, I fax my invoice, and (here American doctors will recoil in amazement) the carrier sends a check for the full amount. I’ve made thousands of such visits.

Working alone, I can’t accept American medical insurance with its complex requirements and unreliable reimbursement. The universal American claim form (called the HICF 1500) is cryptic and ambiguous, requiring mysterious codes and far, far more writing than the form I use. Thus, mine has a single space for today’s date; a HICF form requires today’s date in four or five places. Under “place of service” there is no box to check for “housecall.”

Not accepting American insurance is no problem for me, but I’m a special case. As soon as the average doctor opens an office, every American carrier makes an offer he can’t refuse. If he agrees to become a “preferred provider” and accept a reduced fee, the insurer will send patients. If not….

While foreigners look with horror on our medical care system, foreign insurance carriers have long admired their American counterpart’s techniques for saving money. Inevitably, the temptation has grown irresistible. I’ve long since stopped explaining that, including travel, a housecall may take ten times as long as a clinic visit. These callers are not negotiating; they want a “yes” or “no” answer. They lump all doctor visits together, so housecalls get no special treatment.

American doctors have not taken this lying down. One advantage of the Byzantine American billing system is that a resourceful doctor can tack on charges for tests, injections, medication, dressings, complexity-of-visit, length-of-visit, etc. so that he ends up collecting what he thinks he deserves. After decades of dueling with insurers, the typical American medical bill has become a purely fictional creation.

I quote my fee on the initial phone call. It’s larger if the call gets me out of bed or requires a long drive but never changes once I set off. I’ve made 700 housecalls for AXA over twenty-five years but only four during 2011. This is less tragic than it seems.

Confronted by my refusal to become a preferred provider, AXA and a few other travel insurers transfer their business to one of the national housecall services with names like Expressdoc, Hoteldocs, Travel-Med, AM-PM Doc. All boast that they can send a doctor on a housecall in any US city. Since none employ doctors, when a request arrives, their dispatchers consult a list of moonlighters and begin phoning. Tracking down a doctor willing to make a housecall can be a tedious business except in Los Angeles where calling me always succeeds. I’ve made thousands of visits for these services.

I quote my usual fee. To make a profit these services must bill AXA et al several hundred dollars more. If this seems illogical, you should realize that every insurance carrier knows that the “preferred provider” policy saves money, so no one questions it.