Friday, November 24, 2017

Too Many Cooks

As I was preparing for bed, a call arrived from one of my favorite hotels, the Palomar. It’s large and upscale but mostly I like it because it’s only a short drive. The caller explained that his nine year-old son had been coughing for three days.

“I started him on phenoxymethy penicillin,” he added.

 “Does he have a bad sore throat?” I asked. Penicillin treats strep throat and no other common childhood illness, but the presence of coughing makes strep unlikely.

“No. I thought it might help… My brother is a pediatric consultant in London. He gave me a Ventolin inhaler.”

“Did that help?”

“A little.”  That means 'no,' but it was a good idea. Asthma inhalers often relieve a cough even in patients without asthma.

“I’m a doctor who comes to hotels. Would you like me to see him?” I asked.

“My wife wonders if I should take him to a clinic for a chest x-ray and blood tests.”

“Unless he’s very sick, that’s not necessary.”

“Maybe you should come. Can you give him cortisone?”

“I carry cortisone….”

“So you could give him an injection?”

“I’d have to examine him first.”

After consulting with his wife, he said “We will wait for you.”

I exchanged my pajamas for a suit, filled out my encounter form, and was about to leave when the phone rang. It was the Palomar, and I knew what that meant. Guests don’t like to cancel in person, so a hotel employee delivered the message.

“The gentleman says he’s decided to take the child to an urgent care clinic.”

“There’s none in this area open so late. He’ll have to go to the UCLA emergency room.”

“Thanks for the information. I’ll tell him.”

I reverted to my pajamas and went to bed where I passed an uneventful night. The Palomar guest probably passed it in the emergency room.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Wonders of GPS

My wife and I wanted to visit the Riverside photography museum, seventy miles away.

During this time there was a 50-50 chance of a hotel call, but only half require a visit. Our luck didn’t hold, and my phone rang after forty miles; someone was vomiting, not a visit I can stall. When I asked directions to the address from my iPhone, it claimed no such location existed. Since this was an insurance call, the patient was not an English-speaker. She had phoned the insurance office in Miami whose dispatcher (also not a native English speaker) phoned me. Addresses often become garbled.

I called the patient’s number and heard a busy signal, always a bad sign on today’s phones. I was forced to call the insurance number, spending a few minutes on hold before reaching a different dispatcher who spent several minutes researching before turning up the correct address.

Then the iPhone GPS worked its magic, laying out a very specific route to an obscure area near Long Beach thirty miles away. While I took care of the patient, she looked up a nearby restaurant on an iPhone App. We ate lunch and returned home.

Two days later we repeated the drive, this time successfully. Most photography museums are art galleries, but Riverside’s is part of the University of California, so it delivers large dose of history with displays of old cameras and old photographs. Driving home with the rush hour approaching, I kept an eye on the iPhone GPS, marveling at its accuracy at predicting freeway jams.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Suitophobia, Part 2

The only American doctors who don’t worry about malpractice suits are fresh out of training. They believe that practicing good medicine will keep them safe. Once they are sued, they join the worriers.

Fifteen percent of surgeons are sued every year. It’s twenty percent for high-risk subspecialties like neurosurgery and cardiac surgery. Family doctors like me do better -- only five percent per year. This means that every doctor is sued sooner or later. Mostly we win, and almost no one pays a penny even if we lose, but it’s a miserable experience. I work hard to find material for this blog, but you’ll never read about my suit.

One reason doctors are sued for malpractice is malpractice, but plenty of other reasons exist.

Hollywood generally presents doctors in a good light, but in the dozen or so movies about medical malpractice, the doctor character is always evil. Hollywood generally presents lawyers in a bad light, but in those same movies about malpractice, the victim's lawyer is always the hero. 

I once wrote a courtroom drama about a surgeon who was committing malpractice – doing hysterectomies strictly for the money. But he had a pleasant personality, so patients liked him (in the movies these doctors are always sleazy); he was a skillful surgeon, so there were no pitiful victims to testify, and he had a smart lawyer, so he won. I thought the story was deliciously ironic, but the number of editors who agree is holding steady at zero.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Why I Discourage Appointments

“The guest will be in the room at six o’clock and would like to see you then,” announced the concierge at two o’clock.

Tactfully, I suggested that she not make appointments without consulting me. The Torrance Marriott is eighteen miles away, and I didn't want to drive across town during the rush hour to see someone who wasn’t sick enough to leave work. I phoned to tell the guest that I could come immediately or at nine p.m. She chose nine.

Arriving ten minutes early, I knocked, and no one responded. Reached by cell phone, the guest reminded me that the visit was scheduled for nine. She was dining nearby, she added, and would hurry back. Twenty minutes passed before she arrived, but during that time another hotel phoned with a visit on my way home, so it looked like a good evening.

The guest arrived, apologized, and described her problem, a minor eye irritation. After I finished she mentioned that her husband felt under the weather. This is usually pleasant news because this couple had travel insurance. My routine is to ask the patient to phone the insurance to obtain approval, so I could care for him and be paid. But obtaining authorization takes time. It was late, and I was anxious to see the next patient who seemed genuinely ill, so I treated the husband’s cold gratis and hurried off.  

Wednesday, November 8, 2017


“I’m Doctor Oppenheim….”

“Welcome to the Intercontinental, Doctor Oppenheim. Are you checking in?”

Damn. Another employee who doesn’t recognize me. This happens in hotels that have called for decades. Who knows what she’ll tell a guest who asks for help?

I don’t market myself, but years ago I decided to hand a copy of my latest book to general managers of my regular hotels and explain, modestly, that writing allowed me free time to serve their guests. They listened politely, made flattering comments, and went back to work. It was clear many had no idea who I was. My tenth visit, to the downtown Hilton, was my last. 

“What do you mean ‘serve our guests?’” snapped the GM. “We don’t have a hotel doctor. We don’t want a hotel doctor. You’re going to get a letter from our lawyer!” He snatched my book and marched off. I was a familiar figure to Hilton staff, having made over 100 visits, but I never made another.

That was my first encounter with the epidemic of suitophobia that rages among hotel managers, compelling them to forbid staff from helping sick guests except by getting them off the premises. At any given time, about ten percent are affected. Most recover after a few years, but in the meantime both guests and hotel doctors suffer. I made over 600 visits to the J.W. Marriott in Century City before calls abruptly stopped. I learned the reason from concierges who swore me to secrecy when they snuck me in to see a particularly demanding guest.  

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Shots Guests Need and Shots They Request

Long ago a man phoned to inform me that he was on his honeymoon and would like a shot of testosterone. I explained that this was unlikely to solve his problem. 

He did not want to leave any stone unturned, and I’m happy to make a housecall to deliver a harmless injection, but I couldn’t because I didn’t carry testosterone. I bought some on my next drug order. Sadly, I never received another request. I discarded the vial after it expired and never replaced it.

Also long ago, a woman whose hot flashes were acting up asked for an estrogen injection. I explained that pills work as well, but she was willing to pay for an injection which I couldn’t provide. I ordered estrogen, but no one has asked for it since.

I carry two sorts of medication: those guests need and those they ask for. The second category is tricky as these examples illustrate. Another: bereaved guests or those in great emotional distress often beg for a shot to “put them out.” Unfortunately, although movie doctors use it regularly, there is no injection that makes you go to sleep.

B12 remains a hotel doctor’s only reliable moneymaking placebo. I’ve never encountered an illness that required it, but requests arrive several times a year. Celebrities often ask for an injection before a performance, always a thrill.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

How a Hotel Doctor Collects His Fee

Many guests pay cash; most foreigners have travel insurance, and I accept credit cards. Technology makes this easy although the company takes about six percent for the convenience. Using a phone, I dial a computer whose automated voice instructs me to enter half a dozen codes (my bank number, my merchant number, the credit card number, the fee…).

In the past I used the room phone until I noticed guests looking uneasy and remembered that hotels charge for phone calls. Now I use my cell phone, an awkward alternative because the small keypad encourages mistakes. At the end, the computer announces its approval and recites an authorization code which I dutifully copy.

Occasionally it denies approval – not by telling me the card is bad or that I’ve entered the wrong number but by announcing cheerfully, “please hold on while we transfer you to a customer service representative.” Hearing this, I immediately hang up because the company charges anytime someone speaks to customer service. I then dial again and re-enter the numbers. Sometimes this works. If it doesn’t, there is a scramble as guests search for another card or their wallets.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Most Common Phrase a Hotel Doctor Hears

That would be “Sorry for the mess.” Sometimes I hear it as I step into the room, more often when I look for a place to set down my paperwork because all surfaces are piled with discarded clothes, toilet articles, food wrappers, luggage.

A messy room does not greatly embarrass guests. This is not the case when, after introducing myself and listening to the complaints, I put a thermometer in a guest’s mouth and announce that I will wash my hands. That invariably produces a minor panic as someone hurries into the bathroom to clear away another mess and search, sometimes in vain, for a clean towel.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Luxurious Langham

Mid-level chains (Hilton, Hyatt, Holiday Inn, Sheraton) provide most of my business. I love luxury hotels, but these have traditionally formed the bread-and-butter of hotel doctoring, so my competitors love them more. The result is that when one of them notices an iconic Los Angeles hotel (Bel Air, Beverly Hills Hotel, Peninsula, Sofitel, Four Seasons) calling me too often, he steps in and points out the error of its ways.)

My colleagues don’t care to travel, so I’m the doctor for one of the most opulent hotel in the county: the Langham (formerly Ritz-Carlton) in Pasadena 25 miles away. It sits on twenty acres that includes a beautiful Italianate-style main building, luxurious Spanish Revival-style cottages, and a historic garden.

A Langham concierge once asked me to speak to a guest with an upset stomach. The guest sounded weary and hoarse after vomiting for several hours, but she was in good health, so odds favored the usual stomach virus, miserable but rarely life-threatening. Most vomiters want quick relief, but she preferred to wait it out. I gave the usual advice (don’t eat, don’t drink, suck on a piece of ice) and left my number. Fifteen minutes later the concierge connected me to another vomiting guest who also declined a visit.

This would have been a rare treat – two patients at the same hotel. Sadly, both were American. Since Pasadena lacks the international tourist caché of Los Angeles, the Langham houses mostly Americans who are less inclined to pay for a housecall.   

When I phoned later that day, both had recovered. They were grateful for my concern, but they would have been more grateful if I’d cared for them. Although you might not think so, I consider vomiting a good visit. It usually doesn’t last long, and the doctor gets the credit when it stops.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Another Shot Request

The guest had the medicine and syringes; all I had to do was draw it up give the injection. The drug was a blood thinner she needed after hip surgery, so it was a legitimate request (some guests, usually from third world nations, arrive with weird stuff).

Giving a shot is easy, but most guests don’t want to pay my fee. Long ago, I explained that a hotel doctor spends ninety percent of his time driving and parking, so delivering a shot takes as long as other routine visits. This never convinced anyone, so I offer a discount.    

It’s a mystery to me why doctors prescribe injections and then – hearing that the patient is traveling – advise them to find a doctor or nurse to administer it. A nurse won’t give an injection without a doctor’s order, and most doctors will refuse.

In our suit-happy society, why would a doctor give medicine to someone he’s never seen strictly on the patient’s say-so? As a result, I hear from plenty of guests steaming from frustrating encounters at local clinics. They remain convinced that giving a shot shouldn’t cost much, so these are not visits that produce much gratitude.   

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Don't Do Anything!

The guest was feverish, and his abdomen felt tender and rigid, a sign of peritonitis. He needed to go to an emergency room. I phoned his travel insurance to let them know.

This particular agency was a slow payer, usually a sign that it would be hard to deal with. Sure enough, after hearing the news, the dispatcher informed me that the patient must first go to the Airport Medical Center, an urgent care clinic. It’s not part of a hospital, and the doctor on duty has the same training as I.

Getting a second opinion before sending a client to an emergency room saves the agency money, but it wouldn’t in this case because my patient needed to go. There was always a chance the AMC doctor would send him home, so I phoned the clinic to make sure he thought twice.

No sensible doctor tells another doctor what to do, so I chose my words carefully. I was sending a man with bad abdominal pain and peritoneal signs, I explained. I felt he needed to go to an emergency room and be admitted, but his insurance insisted on an urgent care clinic. He thanked me for the information. “We don’t have too many facilities here,” he added. “But we’ll do what we can.”

“Don’t do anything. Send him to the hospital,” would have been tactless, so I didn’t say it.

Once a doctor decides a patient needs emergency care, allowing a test to change his mind is a bad idea. For example, an abnormal blood count points to an infection. Good. But what if the blood count comes back normal? The answer: send him anyway. Doctors shouldn’t order a test that won’t change the treatment, but we do it all the time.

So the man spent a few miserable hours while the doctor ordered tests that doctors order when a patient has a fever and bellyache: blood work and an abdominal x-ray. I have no idea of the results, but I checked to make sure he’d gone to the hospital, and he had.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

I Get Letters

In my dreams, agents write, suggesting a book, perhaps entitled “Hotel Doctor to the Stars.” So far these haven’t arrived, but physicians occasionally E-mail me. They want to know how to become a hotel doctor.

I advise them to (1) let local hotels know they’re available and (2) wait. It helps if (3) there’s no competition. That worked for me although I began in 1983 and it wasn’t until 1992 when my yearly visits passed 1,000, and I quit other jobs to become a fulltime hotel doctor. By then others were entering the field, so newer doctors will wait longer.

My only advertising is a dignified letter to general managers three or four times a year. Aggressive competitors who extol their services to desk clerks and concierges often take over my regular hotels, at least temporarily, but it didn’t work when I tried it. At better hotels, employees are nice to everyone, so they listened intently, eagerly accepted my business card, and promised to keep me in mind. The first few times, I left feeling pleased with myself, but calls never followed. At cheap hotels and motels, staff seemed mystified at the concept of calling a hotel doctor. No one ever got sick, they insisted.

It’s possible I was missing the key inducement: money. Paying a bellman, desk clerk, or concierge “referral fee” has a long tradition in hotel doctoring. It’s illegal, and all my competitors condemn the practice, but I suspect it happens.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Three Discouraging Words

In rudimentary English, a Hilton guest explained that his rash needed attention.

“I’ll be there within the hour,” I said and quoted the fee. He replied with a phrase that makes a hotel doctor’s heart sink.

“I have insurance.”

From an American, this usually means no visit. Collecting from American carriers requires either a trained billing clerk or far more patience than I possess. I refer these guests to a local clinic.

Foreign travel insurers are better. I send a bill, and (unlike American insurers) they send a check for the identical amount. I asked the name of his insurer. It was Assistcard, an agency that’s called since the 90s.

The proper step was to ask the guest to phone Assistcard who would confirm his eligibility, and phone me. This never happens quickly, but it’s rarely a problem because 95 percent of travelers call their insurance first, so I don’t hear about the visit until it’s approved. This guest had mistakenly called me. I told him I would arrange matters.  

After listening to my explanation, the Assistcard dispatcher said she would call the guest, confirm his coverage, and call back. To pass time, I booted up my copy of Sim City. This worked too well; after 45 minutes of wrestling with urban problems I realized the phone had remained silent. Calling, I discovered that my dispatcher had vanished, perhaps to lunch. After putting me on hold, another dispatcher assured me that the wheels were turning. I phoned the guest to make sure he hadn’t wandered off only to learn that no one at Assistcard had called and that his tour was leaving in two hours. I called the dispatcher who explained that the guest was Indonesian. Assistcard was in Argentina, so getting approval from Indonesia might take a while.

Once the guest left for his tour, the visit would evaporate, so I decided to drive down and take my chances. My phone rang while I was on the freeway. The dispatcher informed me that no one could find the guest’s proof of insurance, but it might eventually turn up. Learning I was on the road, he offered to call the guest and suggest he pay me directly and try to claim reimbursement. That rarely works, but it worked this time.

Monday, October 2, 2017

My Distance Record

My distance record is a 94 mile drive to care for a man with a sore throat.

I’ve found it good business not to refuse inconvenient visits. It’s hard arrange a housecall on short notice, so agencies and travel insurers keep a list of doctors for every area. But humans are creatures of habit, and once a dispatcher learns that calling me always gets the housecall, they continue to call. Ignored, other doctors drift away, and I become the only one available. As long as I don’t refuse too often, they don’t bestir themselves to refresh the list.

I quoted a fee that took into account the long drive, pointing out that it would be cheaper to send the patient to a local clinic. This sometimes gets me off the hook, but it didn’t in this case, so I drove to Santa Barbara. That’s where I served my internship long ago in 1972-73, and the hotel turned out to be three blocks from my former apartment. The hotel was not there forty years ago, and the area had become unrecognizable, so I felt no nostalgia. I saw the patient, stretched my legs, and drove home.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Passing the Word

The Kyoto Grand is a large hotel in downtown Los Angeles that hosts many Japanese. Insurers send me every few months, but the hotel never calls.

One of the staff accompanied me to the room to interpret. After the visit, I described my services. He responded that the hotel had a doctor who practiced in nearby Little Tokyo. I pointed out that this doctor was undoubtedly reluctant to make a housecall during office hours and not eager to come at inconvenient times. The employee shrugged, accepted my business card, and promised to keep me in mind.

That same day my phone rang. It was the employee informing me that another guest needed my services. Naturally, I was delighted, and I drove back downtown to care for a guest with an upset stomach.

You might think I am now the doctor for the Kyoto Grand, but this happened long ago, and no calls have arrived since. While the employee may have lost the card, it’s also likely he neglected to tell anyone else about me. A dozen Los Angeles hotels call rarely because only a single employee knows me. Now and then the news gets around, and the hotel becomes a regular, but I have never figured out how to persuade someone to pass the word.