A hospital's emergency waiting room is a dismal enough place when you're in your hometown. But when something goes wrong on a trip, it can be especially daunting to wait for hours in an unfamiliar place to see an unfamiliar doctor.
Recognizing that--and seeing a chance to turn a profit in an unexplored corner of the health-care business--a handful of services now dispatch doctors on hotel-room house calls for travelers.
Travelers in the U.S. who face life-threatening circumstances, such as heart attack symptoms, are still better off calling 911. But room-service doctors could be a simpler alternative for travelers suffering from sore throats, infections, stomach ailments and other smaller woes.
Say you fall ill in a strange city. Typically, you'd either call one of these medical services directly from your hotel room or seek help through the hotel front desk. Major city hotel chains, such as Hilton, usually keep numbers of such services, along with contacts for three to five doctors with whom they have experience.
Either way, you make the phone contact with the service. Once you've called and agreed to a fee (typically $150-$200), a doctor usually arrives at your room in less than an hour. The usual consultation lasts 20 to 30 minutes, and the traveler/patient pays the medical service, not the hotel, usually via credit card. Later, of course, consumers may face red-tape struggles to get reimbursement from their regular health plans. But the convenience of house-call service remains a powerful selling point.
Especially in high-tourism states like California, Nevada and Florida, hotel house calls have become a growth industry. Jim Abrams, executive vice president of the California Hotel-Motel Assn., says that such companies, if their personnel practices are sound, can be a valuable asset to hotels and their guests.
These companies get much of their business from hotels, which provide guest referrals. Wary of legal liability, some hotels instruct staff to pass along two or more phone numbers if a guest asks about medical care.
Both of the doctor-finding companies described in this column say they check out their physicians thoroughly. But no matter how consumers go about getting a doctor, the Medical Board of California advises that they ask the physician several questions. Among them: At which hospitals do you have staff privileges? Do you practice alone, or are you part of a group? Are you certified by any medical specialty boards?
In California, consumers can call the state Medical Board, telephone (916) 263-2382, on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. to confirm that a physician is licensed in California and to learn if he or she has been a target of disciplinary action, criminal convictions or malpractice judgments.
The most prominent hotel house-call service is probably HotelDocs (headquartered in La Jolla; tel. 800-HOTEL-DR, Internet http://www.hoteldocs.com). The company was founded in January 1988 by Ian Becker, a medical marketing consultant.
Now, says Becker, who remains president of the company, HotelDocs works with about 2,500 moonlighting physicians (along with dentists, chiropractors and a couple of psychiatrists) in more than 250 U.S. cities. Customers pay $150 for most visits between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. and $195 for after-hours appointments. (The company takes credit-card numbers over the phone before the doctor arrives.)
HotelDocs aims for a response time of 35 minutes, and the average appointment lasts about 20 minutes. (Becker pledges a refund to any customer dissatisfied with the hotel doctor's performance.)
On a typical day, Becker estimates, his company sends 50 doctors on hotel house calls. About 30% of customers are foreigners visiting the U.S. Some others, such as crews for Virgin Atlantic Airways, are employees whose companies have corporate accounts.
Ailments vary. Sunburn and heat exhaustion are common in summer, as are hikers with twisted ankles and children with ear infections. In winter, says Becker, "there are tons of people who have flu or cold symptoms. And unfortunately, to get where they're going, they have to sit in a steel tube with 100 other people and breathe each other's fumes."
Another leading competitor in the field is House Call Physicians, headquartered in Costa Mesa; tel. (800) DOCS-911.
Dr. Peter Muran, co-owner of the company, once worked as an emergency room physician about two miles from Anaheim's hotel zone. The days were a parade of tourists with colds, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, respiratory infections, urinary tract infections and gastroenteritis, but those visitors often had to wait their turn behind Orange County residents with serious injuries.
Muran's company, founded in 1990, includes about 65 doctors in 25 metropolitan areas, he said, and works with thousands of hotels. Patients usually pay $150 for appointments that typically last 25 to 35 minutes. The company aims for a response time of 40 minutes or less.
One day in October, for instance, his three affiliated doctors in San Diego were unusually busy, together handling 30 calls. (The New York Yankees were in town that day, along with a few thousand high-spirited visitors, for a World Series game against the Padres.) About half the company's patients, Muran said, are foreign visitors to the U.S.
The on-call doctors, usually family practitioners or emergency-room physicians, write prescriptions (and can provide some common prescription medications), arrange X-rays and laboratory work and make referrals. They typically get 70% to 80% of the patient's fee.
\o7 Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. He welcomes comments and suggestions, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053 or e-mail \f7 email@example.com.