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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Dog-Eat-Dog Business - Part 2

“Doctor Dolman is out of town. Could you speak to a guest at the Fairmont?”

That was a jolt. Dolman was an ambitious young doctor aiming to start a concierge practice. He had phoned months earlier to introduce himself and offer to cover my hotels when I wanted to get away. I declined but suspected he was poaching. For Dolman to instruct his answering service to send me to one of my regulars showed immense gall or perhaps immense confidence.

In private practice it’s unethical to solicit another physician’s patients, but hotels are a grey area. Established hotel doctors who want to remain on friendly terms do not step on each other’s toes, but newcomers have no inhibitions.

I had made hundreds of visits to the Fairmont. The staff knew me, and I took for granted that providing good medical care was enough to keep their loyalty.

After the visit, I stopped by the concierge desk to mention that a guest seemed to have called another doctor.

The concierge’s eyes widened. “Gosh, I don’t know what happened, Doctor Oppenheim. The guest never talked to me.”

I felt better. Maybe it was an innocent mistake. This feeling lasted until I passed the front desk, and a bellman called to me.

“Doctor! My name is Andre. I’m glad to meet you.” He hurried over, holding out his hand; we shook. “It was me that called you for the guest. Is he doing OK? This is the first time I called, but you’re the doctor I’m going to use.” I knew what this meant.
   
“Who do you think I am?”

The bellman cocked his head. “Aren’t you Doctor Dolman? People say I should call Doctor Dolman.”

“I’m Doctor Oppenheim, the hotel’s doctor.”

He looked confused. “Where’s Doctor Dolman?”

“He’s not available. You should call me in the future.” I walked away, pleased at frustrating the bellman who clearly expected a payoff. Bellmen were hopeless, I told myself. Concierges were the key to a hotel’s loyalty, and it looked liked they were still in my corner.

But this happened some time ago, and I haven’t heard from the Fairmont since. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Impressing the General Manager

Years ago Prentice-Hall published The Man’s Health Book, and UPS delivered my ten free copies. Usually I gave those to family and friends. Except for my mother, no one read them, so I wondered if I could put them to better use. 

I decided to visit general managers of my ten biggest hotels, introduce myself, and impress them by handing over my new book. This qualified as aggressive marketing because I had never before approached a hotel employee.

I began my rounds up the street at the Century Plaza and JW Marriott. Then I drove to the San Fernando Valley to visit the Sheraton Universal and nearby Universal Hilton followed by the Hollywood Holiday Inn and Roosevelt, and then downtown.

At each, I approached the secretary in the executive office, identified myself as the hotel doctor, and asked for a minute of her boss’s time. I delivered my spiel, surrendered the book, and accepted their thanks. Some GMs expressed pleasure at finally meeting me, adding flattering words about the quality of my service. Others listened politely and thanked me for the book, but it was obvious they had no idea who I was.

I encountered a third reaction at the Los Angeles Downtown Hilton. The secretary had barely replaced her phone when the GM shot out of his office and hurried over. I began my spiel but he interrupted.

“What do you mean you’re our hotel doctor?” he shouted. “This hotel doesn’t have a doctor!”

“I’ve been coming for years….,” I said. When I checked later, I found I had made 119 visits which implied over 200 phone calls. The staff knew me; the valets never refused to hold my car (essential downtown).

“This hotel doesn’t have a doctor!” he repeated. “What do you mean calling yourself our doctor?”

“I’m not really your doctor,” I admitted. “But when a hotel calls so often…”

“You’re damned right you’re not our doctor. We don’t have a doctor. You’re not to call yourself our doctor!”

Flustered, I did something I still regret. I held out my book. He snatched it and disappeared back into his office. I could have made better use of that copy. A few days later the mail brought a certified letter from an attorney informing me that the Los Angeles Hilton did not require a physician and that I was hereafter forbidden to refer to myself as the Los Angeles Hilton’s doctor.

I stopped passing out books. I take for granted that no Los Angeles hotel familiar with my service can tolerate being without it for long. Although there’s some truth in this, seven years passed before the hotel, now the Wilshire-Grand, resumed calling.

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. 


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Dog-Eat-Dog Business

Years ago I opened a letter from the California Medical Board announcing a complaint against me.

The days when state boards went easy on doctors are long past. In response to persistent criticism, California has joined others in raising license fees, hiring investigators, and issuing press releases boasting of doctors it has disciplined. Every month I receive a bulletin announcing license revocation, suspension, or some humiliating probation. These doctors seemed sad cases: incompetent, alcoholic, dishonest without being clever. Was I about to join them?

Although Los Angeles is the largest city in California, my hearing took place in Diamond Bar, thirty miles east, and it was a gloomy drive. The investigator ushered me into a room where I sat opposite him at a long table, bare except for the evidence. He told me the name of my accuser who turned out to be a competing hotel doctor. We had never met.

The investigator held up a pill box labeled with my handwriting. Later, when I looked up the name on the box, I discovered it was a guest I’d seen a few months earlier. My rival had visited her, noticed the box, and realized it offered an irresistible opportunity.

I carry dozens of medications in little boxes. Handing them out, I once wrote the name of the patient and instructions for taking the pills. This violated California State Pharmacy laws, the investigator informed me. Whenever anyone (not only a pharmacist) gives out a prescription drug, its container must include the patient’s name, the date, the drug’s name, dose, quantity, expiration date, and instructions plus the doctor’s name and contact information. For violating these laws, he added, the board would levy a fine and issue a written reprimand. This was not, however, an offense that endangered my license.

The reprimand announcing my three hundred dollar fine duly arrived. For months I scanned the bulletin, dreading to read my name, but my offense apparently didn’t qualify. It also never appeared on the California Medical Board’s web site when I checked for transgressions.

You can check any California doctor at http://www.medbd.ca.gov/Lookup.htm. Other states have a similar arrangement.

Obeying the pharmacy law required a great deal of writing on that tiny box, but I went along. As for repaying that doctor for the dirty trick, my only recourse was to continue setting foot in his hotels. If this gnawed at him as much as learning of trespassers bothers me, it was vengeance enough.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Doctor for Cheap Lodging

The Banana Bungalows consists of cabins strung out along narrow alleys off the Hollywood Freeway. I parked near the largest.

A desk clerk directed me to a cabin a hundred yards up a hill. Its Spartan interior contained accommodations for eight in four bunk beds, all unmade. Papers, food cartons, luggage, and clothes littered the floor, and there was no furniture, not even a table where I could write. The air smelled of French fries and unwashed bodies:  a typical youth hostel.

Sitting on a vacant bed, I introduced myself. One glance under the man’s shirt confirmed the diagnosis. Chicken pox can be serious in an adult, but this was a mild case.

Walking down the hill, I puzzled over the appeal of youth hostels. They charge thirty-five dollars a night, a bargain, but cheap motels begin at fifty dollars and offer privacy as well as an unshared bathroom. Perhaps young travelers like to clump together.

Back at the front desk, I stood on tiptoes to examine the reverse side that revealed stickers advertising two long-defunct housecall agencies. I caught the eye of the desk clerk, a youth with a shaved head, tank top, and jeans. The quality of front desk personnel varies directly with the quality of the hotel. Since hostels are a nonprofit enterprise, their employees fall below the bottom of the scale.
   
“Could I speak to the front desk manager?”

“I guess that’s me.”

“I’m Doctor Oppenheim. I took care of the man in bungalow ten. Did you call me?”

The clerk shook his head no.

“Maybe one of your colleagues?”

“I’m the only one on duty.” It’s a mystery how often I find no one willing to admit referring a guest. I began my sales pitch.

“Who do you call when a guest wants a doctor?”

“Nobody gets sick. We send them to an ER.”

“You must call someone. Someone called me. And look at those stickers.” The clerk looked down, but his expression remained blank. I pressed on. “I’m a fulltime hotel doctor. All the hotels use me. Your guests can call any time….”

At chain hotels, staff maintain eye contact and a smile as I speak. I often sense their lack of interest, but at least they remember their manners. The Banana Bungalow’s clerk kept nodding to encourage me to get to the point. He flicked an impatient glance at a guest standing nearby.

“I’m always available.”

“We don’t really need a doctor.”

“I notice others have their phone numbers on your desk. Would you mind adding mine?”

“No problem.” The clerk snatched my card and then turned to the waiting guest. I decided not to hang around to make sure he posted it.

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.