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.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Easy Money, Part 2

“I need an eye doctor,” said the caller. “A big red spot came out this morning!”

The guest added that the eye felt fine. The spot didn’t affect his vision but looked terrible.

I’ve encountered several dozen subconjunctival hemorrhages, a fancy name for a bloody patch on the eyeball. Googling turns up a dozen causes from injuries to coughing, leukemia, high blood pressure, and clotting disorders. In reality, if there are no symptoms and the person is in good health, the blood appears for no reason and disappears in a few weeks. That’s happened in every case I’ve seen, including my own.

The guest was staying at the Mondrian, a luxury hotel. He was in room 500 which I knew was a suite. If he’d been at a cheap motel, I might have been more reassuring, but I confined myself to suggesting he might have a subconjunctival hemorrhage and that this was probably not as serious has he thought. He wanted a visit.

It was, of course, entirely satisfying. I examined the eye, paused thoughtfully, and then assured him that it was a subconjunctival hemorrhage and that he had nothing to worry about. He was thrilled. I collected my fee. Everyone was happy.

Monday, May 23, 2016

When the General Manager Consults the Lawyer

The concierge expressed relief when I answered. A lady’s 11 year-old son was seriously ill, but the mother had refused to take him to an emergency room. She had been pestering the hotel staff all day.

“What’s the problem?” I asked. “You only had to phone me.”

I’d made over 300 visits to that hotel since the 1990s. But even as I spoke, I remembered that it hadn’t called in six months. As I feared, the concierge explained that a new general manager had decreed that, for liability reasons, sick guests would be directed to the local emergency room unless calling 911 was appropriate. Doctor referrals were forbidden.

At any given time, about twenty percent of Los Angeles hotels have this policy, but it’s never the same twenty percent. Hotels adopt and then discard this rule because it causes public relations problems. Most guests don’t require 911 and don’t want to go to an emergency room, so they stay in the hotel, sick and resentful. A few persistent guests make so much trouble that, as in this case, a desperate employee disobeys her boss. I’ve made a dozen such visits.

Calling me would have saved everyone trouble. The child had a fever and a bad cough, a routine viral infection. It was an easy visit.

Afterward, as I was commiserating with the concierge, my phone rang with an example of how things are done right. A man at the Langham in Pasadena wanted a doctor to check out his cold. I told him I’d arrive in 45 minutes.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Rule of Medicine That Didn't Apply

I give out medicines gratis. Mostly, they’re cheap, but exceptions exist. For unclear reasons my supplier charges $17 for antibiotic ear drops but $1.50 for antibiotic eye drops. Experts agree that it’s OK to use antibiotic eye drops in the ear, so that’s what I do.

I felt pleased handing over a bottle to a lady with swimmer’s ear. Ear infections are easy visits, and guests appreciate that they do not have to hunt for a pharmacy.

My heart sank when the guest’s insurer called the following day. She wanted another visit. I phoned the guest who admitted that her ear was no worse, but now she had a fever, headache, and sore throat. That was disturbing. Had I missed something?

I returned to the hotel. She had a 102 temperature with swollen tonsils and swollen neck glands. Since she was barely out of her teens, Strep throat was a reasonable diagnosis.

It’s a rule of medicine that a doctor who makes two separate diagnoses is not thinking clearly. Patients have one thing, but this woman definitely had swimmer’s ear and Strep throat. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Relentless Time

Melrose Avenue is hip and upscale as it passes through West Hollywood. Further east, toward downtown, businesses tend toward pawnbrokers, bodegas, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. At least that’s how I remembered it.

If you live long enough, everything familiar vanishes, and I parked among a chic collection of freshly painted boutiques, restaurants, and fashionable clothing shops. Plus a beautiful new hotel that I’d never heard of.    

It was the Hollywood Historic Hotel, converted from a 1920s apartment a few years ago, I learned from the desk clerk. He insisted that I was the first doctor that had appeared, and he seemed happy accept my card.

Even better, there was no answer when I knocked. Since I’d come at the request of a travel insurer, I’d be paid. I tell the insurer that if the guest wants to drive to my home, I’ll take care of him at no charge. No one has taken me up on it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Goose Chases

I knocked at room 777 of the Hyatt Regency, downtown. The guest who answered denied calling a doctor.

Did I get the room number wrong? It’s happened, but this seemed unlikely. Did I get the hotel wrong? There is only one Hyatt Regency in Los Angeles but many Hyatts. The only one that calls regularly is at the airport. I phoned. Sure enough, room 777 at the Airport Hyatt wanted a doctor.

“You’re at the Hyatt,” I said. “Why did you say you were at the Hyatt Regency?”

“Aren’t they the same?”

They aren’t. I drove the fifteen miles to the airport and took care of him.

Friday, May 6, 2016

A Medicolegal Visit

A guest was eating lunch in the hotel restaurant when the chair collapsed. Unfortunately, her hand was resting underneath. The desk clerk asked if I could come immediately.

During my early years, I would hurry over, take care of the problem, and present my bill only to have the guest insist that the hotel was responsible. Management sometimes disagreed, so I learned to settle matters over the phone.

“I need to know who’s paying,” I said.

The clerk she put me on hold, returning to announce that the hotel would take care of it. This would be my 146th  medicolegal visit, my name for a housecall when the hotel offers to pay. Most involve minor injuries that occur on the premises. There were also thirteen upset stomachs, purportedly from hotel food, and nine insect bites, always bedbugs according to the guest.

I arrived to greet a young Englishwoman, her hand in a bowl of ice. Two fingers were exquisitely painful. She needed an x-ray. I found a local orthopedic group on the internet and phoned.

“An initial visit is $500,” said the receptionist. “She needs to pay when she comes in.”

“Wow!” said the guest when I passed this on. This was probably not a comment on the size of the fee (which the hotel would cover) but the traditional European amazement-cum-horror at American doctors’ preoccupation with money.

Both fingers were fractured. Fortunately, her visit was ending, and she flew home the next day.

Monday, May 2, 2016

I Just Need a Shot

A woman under treatment for infertility needed a progesterone shot every month. She had the vial. Could I send a nurse?...

Why do doctors cheerfully give patients medicine and send them off on their travels? It guarantees a hassle.

I don’t have a nurse, but I quoted $50, drove to the hotel and gave the shot. It was not a short drive, but she wouldn’t have paid my regular fee, and I wasn’t doing anything at the time.

This lady was lucky. In any other city, she would be in for a rude, expensive shock. I do hotel doctoring fulltime. My colleagues have other jobs, and they're not likely to drop what they're doing and make a visit at a discount.

Some guests think they can call a nursing service. Nurses earn less than doctors, but a visit from a nursing service is not cheap. It also won’t happen. A nurse won’t give medicine without a doctor’s order.

Going to a clinic or doctor’s office is not likely to work. In today’s malpractice climate, few doctors will give an injection on a patient’s say-so. Carrying a note is also a crapshoot. As I have recounted more than once, doctors look with deep suspicion on patients who arrive with notes. See my post from April 20.