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Advice from a Hotel Doctor
Having a house doctor may be the best service you provide that doesn't cost the hotel anything. Except... how do you know guests are getting good service? How much control can you exert over a doctor? The answer is: a great deal. You would never dream of setting your family doctor's fees, choosing his office hours, or insisting he respond immediately when you call. Not only can you influence all these factors, you should. If you're reluctant, here are some questions whose answers might unsettle you.
1. Is your doctor charging $400 a visit? It happens, and guests pay. But they don't like it.
2. Is he liberal with phone advice, and how much does he charge? The answers may not be yes and zero, but they should.
3. How does he respond at 2 a.m.? Is he a bit testy? Does he send everyone to an ER or suggest they wait till morning? Does he tell your staff to summon paramedics even if there's no emergency? You don't want that.
4. Does the doctor, as he leaves, slip $20 to a bellman or concierge? That's illegal but a tradition among hotel doctors. Your employees will never mention this, but you may not want them to choose your guests' doctor according to the size of his kickback.
THE NATURE OF HOTEL DOCTORING
When I began during the 1980s, only luxury hotels had a "house doctor," usually a local practitioner who did it as a sideline. Nowadays, in a large city even the lowliest motel receives blandishments from a dozen individuals plus several agencies that send moonlighting doctors if they can find one. "Hotel" doctors often acquire hotels by dropping by to extol their virtues to front desk personnel, perhaps with the promise of a tip. I got my start in Los Angeles writing letters to general managers, but this was 1983 when no doctor served middle-class hotels. Despite this, responses were slow; it was 1992 before I became a full-time hotel doctor, and there will never be another.
During the 1990s, half a dozen housecall services sprang up. Working from a central office with an 800 number, they accepted calls from around the US then phoned a local doctor to make the visit. Their base fee was about $200. The doctor received half but could keep whatever extra he charged for drugs and injections. Finding someone willing to make a housecall on the spur of the moment turned out to be difficult. Agencies quickly learned about me, so I made hundreds of visits for organizations with names like Hoteldocs, Travel Med, and Medical Express. An agency that clears $100 per visit requires an immense volume to make a profit, so most have vanished. I also made visits for AMPM Housecalls which charged $350 per visit around 2001-2. AMPM Housecalls remains in business.
Since GMs hear about only the most disruptive problems, they underestimate how often guests want medical attention. A hotel generates one to three requests for a doctor per month for every hundred rooms. As an example, my records over recent years show that the Ritz-Carlton in Los Angeles (304 rooms) called me 77, 84, 83, 77, 100, and 66 times.
Guests who ask for a doctor want a doctor. They don't want directions to the nearest emergency room or a list of clinics. In my long experience, about ten percent of Los Angeles hotels refuse to name a doctor because of liability fears. The hotel lawyer has explained that when a guest sues the doctor, he'll also sue the hotel that recommended him. That's right, but it doesn't matter! Having a good hotel doctor doesn't cause liability problems, it prevents them.
Here's the scenario. A guest feels ill, consults the staff, receives a list of clinics, returns to his room to think matters over, and dies. Under this circumstance, lawyers will fall over themselves in their eagerness to sue the hotel. After all, the guest asked for help and didn't get it. When I visit guests who need urgent care (it's not always obvious), I take them to my car, drive (gratis) to a clinic or ER and usher them inside. This is not only good medicine, it's self-defense. I'm responsible for that guest, but once he settles into another facility, I'm off the hook. Your staff could offer the same service, but they lack a doctor's authority. When I decide a guest needs to go somewhere, I don't take no for an answer.
In the old days, hotel staff summoned a doctor in the same way they summoned a prostitute. A bellman made a phone call, and the lady arrived. Departing, she stopped by the bell desk to leave a portion of her fee. This custom has not vanished. In my regular hotels, I was always aware of a few employees who called competitors because they wanted the tip.
Even in the old days, a European hotel's doctor was not an employee, but these things were managed better overseas where general managers chose the doctor. This is clearly not the case in the US because I recall only half a dozen interviews in thirty years. Of course, hotels that chose me sight-unseen never had cause to regret it, but this was not invariably the case. Google Jules Lusman.
An encounter with a doctor sticks in a guest's mind, so you should do your best to ensure it's a positive experience. This means an interview and a check of credentials. To find candidates, phone other hotels to ask who they use. Any experienced concierge or bellman can provide names if approached tactfully. Asking your family doctor might help, but most doctors hate doing housecalls, and you wouldn't want someone with a busy practice. Internet searches are skimpy ("housecall doctor" works better than "hotel doctor"). Your mail may turn up publicity from housecall agencies, but these are a crapshoot because they employ an ever-changing cast of moonlighters.
Determining a doctor's competence is essentially impossible (fortunately most are OK), but you want to make sure there are no skeletons in his closet. Don't spend money on internet companies that claim to uncover a doctor's background. Simply do a search for "(your state) medical board complaints" to find a site where you can enter the doctor's name and learn if he has come to the board's attention. In California, this turns up http://www.medbd.ca.gov/Lookup.htm where you can check me out.
Then you or a trusted colleague should ask him to drop in. The interview shouldn't take long; your guests will form an opinion based on a quick first impression, so why shouldn't you? It's a good idea to keep in mind the following.
WHAT GUESTS WANT WHEN THEY WANT A DOCTOR
1. When guests call the doctor, they should reach the doctor.
I'm amazed that physicians still use numbers that reach answering services, beepers, and receptionists. Mine reaches my cell phone. Guests love that I answer in person. Other doctors express horror that anyone can call my "home number." I point out that hotel doctoring is a luxury service and expensive. Guests should get what they pay for. Since it's also highly competitive, a GM should have no trouble persuading a doctor to respond quickly. It's something you can check on by dialing the number now and then, and you should.
3. Phone advice should be free.
Lawyers agree unanimously that doctors should never, never give advice over the phone. Some obey, but you don't want one to serve your hotel. More than half of guests who call me don't require a visit, so this is no minor matter. Here you're out of luck if you use a housecall service, because the guest will speak to a dispatcher whose sole duty is scheduling a visit.
Every few months a guest will unpack and realize his or her heart medication or birth control pills are at home. They will be in despair, because they assume getting a replacement will be a tiresome, expensive process. It will thrill them to hear that the house doctor will simply phone a local pharmacy. I do that regularly, and I don't charge.
4. When the doctor agrees to come, he should come.
Since competition moved in, my greatest source of new clients is doctors who take hours to show up. Patients will fume quietly in a waiting room, but hotel guests are quick to complain. Staff then call the doctor's number, reaching the answering service who promises to page him. After a while they call me. In thirty years, no one has called to wonder where I am because I always tell a guest the time I'll arrive and call again to apologize if I'm delayed. This is such common courtesy that you should be deeply suspicious of any doctor who gets complaints. If asked about housecalls during the wee hours, all candidates will proclaim their eagerness, but your staff should keep a record of guests who ask for help late at night. You'll soon learn if the doctor doesn't like to get out of bed.
5. He should not charge an arm and a leg.
I charge $180-200 during most of the day plus $50 for calls that get me out of bed. Guests at cheaper hotels pay less. My only extra is for distant hotels which varies according to the distance and how reluctant I am to make the drive. I don't charge for supplies or medication, and that includes injections. These turn out to be surprisingly cheap; I rarely give out anything that costs me over $10, and most guests get everything they need.
At midnight in the hotel restaurant, a guest asked the waiter to light her cigarette. When he complied, her finger burst into flame. She had recently applied acrylic nails, and the cement is flammable. The guest was drunk and abusive, and she refused to go to an emergency room... That's a story for another article in which I recount times I've saved a hotel's bacon. This won't happen often, but you'll thank your lucky stars when it does. On a regular basis, having a reliable house doctor represents an important guest service, and it makes your staffs' job easier. Guests are always grateful - and they give the hotel credit.
Doctor Oppenheim has been a hotel doctor in Los Angeles for thirty years. He has made about 15,000 visits.
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