By Mike Oppenheim, MD
Hotel doctors need other doctors to cover for them. For years, I relied on a colleague, Dr. Harrell. He was an excellent physician, but that meant his practice was growing steadily busier. In an effort to attract someone else, I placed several ads in the Los Angeles County Medical Journal. If hotel doctoring seems romantic to you, it has the same effect on the medical profession, so these produced an avalanche of responses.
Some callers had a practice and their own insurance, but that meant they couldn’t make visits during the day if I had a burst of calls (Harrell couldn’t either). Most eagerly assured me they’d love to make visits after office hours – to hotels in their neighborhood. Since doctors live in prosperous neighborhoods, but hotels cluster in less desirable areas such as downtown and the airport, this would make my life too complicated.
I never considered myself unique until I tried to find a helper. My ideal would be competent, likeable, available 24 hours a day, and willing to travel anywhere. That described me. Harrell qualified in three out of four, and I never improved on that.
A surprising number of doctors announced they were free during the day and eager to make visits no matter how distant. All made me uncomfortable. Why didn’t they have a job? Even in Los Angeles, doctors have no trouble finding work. Quizzing them provided no reassurance. They had just arrived in town, they were unwilling to settle down just yet, they were searching for a congenial position… My explanation that covering would bring in a minuscule income didn’t faze them. I took for granted any doctor with a day job possessed at least marginal competence, but what about these fellows? During my early, freelance years, I had encountered some amazingly bad doctors and had wondered how they slipped through medical school and into practice without anyone noticing.
The only completely trustworthy doctor available during office hours was me. I acquired Doctor Harrell when another practitioner who only wanted visits in his neighborhood mentioned an internist fresh out of training who had joined his group. Since it would be a while before he acquired his own patients, he had plenty of free time. That worked for years, but Harrell’s free time was dwindling fast.
A Doctor Shapero phoned after reading one of my ads. He served a few local establishments, he informed me. He had never heard of me and expressed surprise that I had acquired so many hotels that I needed help. I decided he wasn’t looking for a job but wanted to chat. Hotel doctors are such a rare breed that we hardly ever meet, so this was a rare opportunity to talk shop. He invited me to drop by, so I drove to his apartment a few miles away in Beverly Hills.
We exchanged stories and gossiped. At one point he mentioned leaving town the previous weekend. A urologist colleague had taken his calls. After returning, Shapero learned the colleague had left a business card at every hotel he visited. I sympathized and then added I’d be happy to cover – and I promised not to solicit. He nodded to acknowledge the offer then changed the subject.
I thought no more about it until a week later when he called. He was stuck in the office, he explained, and a guest at the Bel Air hotel couldn’t wait. Would I make a visit? Since then, I’ve made over 300 visits to his hotels, all wonderfully upscale because he turned out to be the doctor for half a dozen of the ritziest including the Four Seasons, Bel Air, Sofitel, Beverly Wilshire, and Peninsula.
Naturally, Doctor Shapero offered to return the favor; he’s made about 40 visits for me. The lives we lead account for part of this difference. He has a practice and a busy social life. Once he realized he could trust me, he lost any inhibitions about calling. My leisure activities are reading and writing, and I never gave these priority when a hotel called. But it also took a few months to realize Doctor Shapero’s hotels required him to travel no more than a few miles, and he was not interested in driving further.
Returning from time off, I always quiz the covering doctor, so I could record the details on my computer database and learn of any problems. Many callers didn’t require a visit, Harrell and Shapero often explained. This is routine in hotel doctoring, and I didn’t pay attention until several guests called to beg me to come, explaining that they had called someone earlier and been told they didn’t need a visit. That’s when I realized Doctor Shapero didn’t like traveling to distant hotels. Thereafter I avoided calling him except when the hotel was within his range. He never complained.