Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Twilight of the Hotel Doctor

Uber is driving taxi companies out of business. Air Bnb is putting stress on hotels. A stream of retail chains are declaring bankruptcy in the face of online competition. No one doubts that this trend will continue. Online services are cheaper if sometimes inferior. Uber drivers earn less than traditional cabbies – not a notably prosperous profession. But customers aren’t complaining. They like cheap.

It’s absolutely certain that housecall doctors like me are doomed. We’re expensive and often – at least in my case – the quality of our service is too good.

Los Angeles residents already have a choice of two phone apps. Tap either one, enter your credit card information, and a doctor will arrive within hours. The fee will be less than mine – and I charge less than the typical hotel doctor.

One consequence of a low fee is that they pay doctors less than the going rate. As a result, they attract residents in training or just beginning practice, but these seem adequate.

As you know I work for everyone, and I worked for both. I didn’t care for the low pay, but I’d still be working if it weren’t that I had no control over the patients I saw.

When hotel guests phone, I always talk to them. If the problem is minor, I give advice and suggest that a housecall isn’t necessary. If it requires a simple service such as a prescription, I take care of it over the phone. If it requires a test, x-ray, or emergency room visit, I can usually determine that.

If the guest has unrealistic expectations, I can avoid an unsatisfying encounter. I can warn a hoarse singer that she probably won’t be better by evening.

Many callers request treatments that they don’t need. You might think of narcotics, but mostly it’s an antibiotic for their respiratory illness. I only prescribe an antibiotic if it will help which puts me at odds with most of the medical profession, so many patients will be disappointed and a few upset if I don’t treat their “bronchitis” or “sinus infection” as their doctors do. When this seems likely I direct them to a local clinic where they’ll get their antibiotic or (if they stumble on a competent doctor) express their disappointment to someone else.

When hotels phone, I make a housecall less than half the time. Guests love the free service. Even better, when I drive off, I know that I’ll be able to help, and – no less important – the guest will feel helped.

Working for these Uber services, I had to make every visit they assigned. All I learned was a symptom (“cough” “allergy”). The result is that I walked into situations where a housecall was not appropriate (“granny hasn’t seen a doctor in thirty years; would you check her out?...”). Many had problems I could have handled over the phone; others required more than a housecall could provide. And there were the usual unreasonable requests.

My faithful readers know that hotel visits don’t always work out. I’d estimate that five percent are less than satisfactory. Working for housecall services, the percentage was much higher. I didn’t like the stress of wondering what I would encounter.

But I see the writing on the wall. Hotels that emphasize superior service (i.e. expensive ones) will continue to refer guests to a specific doctor. Otherwise, ironically, the old days will return. When I began in 1983, motels and chains (Holiday Inn, Ramada, Hilton, Best Western…) had no interest in a hotel doctor. At least in Los Angeles, I was the first to approach them. By the 1990s, they were calling me and an increasing number of competitors, but managers of these hotels still pay little attention, so employees are on their own when guests ask for help.

Although my faithful clients continue to call, I’ve noticed a decline from the great mass of hotels that never called regularly. But I already collect Social Security, and I’ll be fine when I retire.

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