The Branding Doctor: How Starry Pediatrician Michel Cohen Revived His Ailing Practice

20140918_Obs002_FSP3930_hires_q60

Pediatrician Dr. Michel Cohen in his Tribeca offices.

In the mid-aughts, when Tribeca was still an underdeveloped bastion of artists and creatives, pediatrician Michel Cohen was a neighborhood institution. Locals were drawn to the French native’s laid-back style and country doctor charm. He wore jeans, introduced himself as Michel and rode his bike to house calls. Wooden toys were scattered about his loft-like office down on Harrison Street, which he opened in 1994, and parents were often encouraged to pop in unscheduled.

He was known for being hands-off, (he preferred to see, for example, if an ear infection resolved itself before prescribing antibiotics) and  for his focus on easing the burden on parents (if a strict schedule doesn’t work for you, don’t push it). He was a laissez faire alternative to the more clinical and formal uptown practices that catered to Manhattan helicopter parents.

The rest of the city took notice. After appearing looking tousled but chic in a GQ fashion spread—an untucked Hawaiian shirt (Paul Smith) underneath a brown checkered suit (Comme des Garcons) and trademark dark horn-rimmed glasses (Selima Optique)—this paper dispatched a reporter downtown to investigate what the fuss was. “Everyone says, ‘I’m with Michel Cohen,’ ” gushed Tribeca parent (and Calypso founder) Christiane Celle, who was speaking in French. “People are proud of that.” Publishing heavyweight Judith Regan called Dr. Cohen, wanting him to write a gossipy tell-all about the life of a celebrity pediatrician, but Dr. Cohen demurred and wrote a parenting book: The New Basics: A-to-Z Baby & Child Care for the Modern Parent, published in 2004.


Even as Dr. Cohen, who had already opened satellite offices in Southampton and Brooklyn, became an oft-quoted expert, his actual practice was foundering.


Even as Dr. Cohen, who had already opened satellite offices in Southampton and Brooklyn, became an oft-quoted expert, his actual practice was foundering. “I was a doctor-to-the-stars, I had a little bit of fame, I wrote the book, and I got a little engulfed in that,” Dr. Cohen says now, his English burnished with a purring French accent. “And then I found out one day that I was almost broke. One day, I turn around and I’m in the red, and I kind of freaked out.”

When he opened the books, he found bills that were never even filed to the insurance companies. He was, he remembers, $400,000 in debt. “I thought, ‘My whole world is collapsing. It has no validity if I’m in debt.’ So I turn around 180 degrees and just [said], ‘I’m going to make this profitable.’ ” There had to be changes. Patients couldn’t show up when they pleased, aimless examining room chatter and house calls had to go. He instituted strict late and cancellation policies and created an electronic database that can provide parents with documents like school forms in half an hour. He’d have to treat his practice less a la Francais and more a la New York and assume an attitude that ran counter to everything he’d warned New York parents against: He’d have to become a helicopter CEO.

***

Born and raised in Nice, France, Dr. Cohen didn’t see medicine as a calling so much as a default. “In France you became a lawyer or a doctor, or do some like philosophy studies where you basically didn’t have a job,” he says. Truth was, after medical school, Dr. Cohen had dreams of becoming a professional dancer. He studied modern dance (including a stint at The Merce Cunningham Studio) but by 30, he had to make a change and he returned to medicine, heading off to Africa to work at a dispensary for children, which is what first drew him to pediatrics.

Eventually he returned to Nice, where he met his then-wife, an artist, and together the couple moved to New York where he entered a residency program at New York University and Long Island College Hospital. The couple had three daughters. Dr. Cohen says he was working at New York Downtown Hospital, when one day, he came upon Tribeca, with its open loft-spaces and rundown but quiet cobblestone streets. “I was like, ‘Wow, this neighborhood is super cool. I am going to set up a practice.’ I didn’t even know if people lived here,” he says. It was 1994, and he rented a loft with a storefront on Harrison Street, he says, and moved in with his wife and three kids. “It turned out there were a lot of people living here—a lot of artists, a lot of people in the movie business.” Within six months, he had a full patient load. He called his practice Tribeca Pediatrics.

Medically, Dr. Cohen was a bit of an iconoclast. “Since the start, I had a philosophy of medicine that was very low intervention, trying not to use antibiotics, trying not to use medication if I didn’t need to. At that time it was a little out there.” He suggests that babies can transition from formula to milk at around eight months, instead of the more standard 12 months. He also does not recommend Vitamin D for newborns since, he says, most of his upper middle-class patients tend to have healthy diets, this despite the recommendation set by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the national association that sets guidelines for pediatric care (and of which he is not a member).

“I think it’s a very conservative, very rigid body of authority,” Dr. Cohen says. “So we take what they say with a grain of salt.”

That approach appeals to Kate Knouse, who’s brought her toddler to the Park Slope office since birth. “A lot of my friends were rigid, but my doctor told me what I wanted to hear: That it wasn’t going to be an abrupt crazy change of lifestyle, it’s going to be what you make of it,” she says. “They supported feed on demand, nap when the baby naps, if it makes your life easier to have this baby on a schedule, go for it but if it doesn’t, don’t do it.”


Perhaps his most polarizing advice is his view that babies as young as 2 months old should be left to “cry it out,” as they say, a non-method method designed to teach them to sleep through the night.


Perhaps his most polarizing advice is his view that babies as young as 2 months old should be left to “cry it out,” as they say, a non-method method designed to teach them to sleep through the night. (Though Dr. Cohen swears by it, he didn’t follow his own advice until his own baby No. 3.) “I’ll tell you I didn’t do everything right, far from it,” he says of his own parenting. “I learned with my kids a lot.”

If expansion is a sign, Dr. Cohen’s methods have been a success, which is notable since so many doctors these days are shuttering their solo practices to join larger groups or hospital systems. Today, Tribeca Pediatrics has 15 offices that span three states (there are offices in Jersey City and Los Angeles). His patient load, he says, is 32,000 and he employs about 40 doctors, whom he trains himself. Each office has a local feel: No office has more than two doctors, and each one has padded green European wallpaper, trendy wood toys nestled in the corners. Dr. Cohen designs all the office furniture himself with a crew that builds it in Ditmas Park. There are no white rubber gloves in clear plastic containers on the countertops or cotton balls and sticks sitting in a cup. “The point is when you’re in a room, you don’t see any medical equipment whatsoever,” he says.

Despite such homey touches, parents inevitably have complaints. On messaging boards, they gripe that doctors can be brusque, miss signs of major illness, and be too messianic about their version of sleep-training.

One mother of a 9-month-old, who asked to remain anonymous because her child is still a patient at the practice, complained, “They push their sleep philosophy too much. Their sleep strategy didn’t work for us. We called them to talk about what we didn’t appreciate about it. It felt like they were a little bit pushy with it. It felt like a brand identity issue for them—it felt a little gimmicky,” she says. “I have a master’s in public health. I asked them to show research that that was not harmful to the child. They said all the smiling parents we have are evidence and that’s just bogus.”

Others say that the focus on efficiency has come at a cost. “I think he’s a decent doctor but he must be more concerned with empire building and branding than he is with medicine,” he says. “What they call a well visit with Dr. Cohen is the equivalent of a Jiffy Lube. It’s quick.”

20140918_Obs002_FSP3951-Edit_hires_q60

Michel Cohen treats your kids but he looks like an art director.

Dr. Cohen himself only sees patients on Wednesdays, and spends most of his time training new doctors, sifting through monthly reports about patient wait times, and sending check-in emails to randomly selected patients. “I love what I do but it is super repetitive, and the tendency for doctors like me is that you become a little bit like a machine,” he says. “It’s doing the same thing over and over. It’s not like you are a brain surgeon.”

One of his biggest challenges is figuring out how much time his doctors should spend with patients: “Time with patients is extremely important and how do you do the balance? On one hand, you have insurance, which just cut the reimbursement, and then on the other then you have to spend enough time for a patient for them to feel comfortable. So you have the doctors on the Upper East Side, they say, ‘No insurance, I’ll spend an hour with you, 300 bucks, cash.’ So that’s one way. I don’t think it’s realistic.”

‘Hello, how are you? Comment ca va?” Dr. Cohen waves to a patient as she passes the row where he is seated, laid-back-like. He’s in dark skinny jeans, with a matching jacket and blue-and-yellow checkered shirt. His horn-rimmed glasses are thick and strikingly blue. He has a coffee. When it comes time to take his picture, he insists there be a photo with a baby, and he roams the halls looking for one: “We need a baby,” he calls out before one couple happily offers up their newborn. The whole encounter is friendly and relaxed. Dr. Cohen’s casual air is still there even as he talks business. “What we do is a little bit novel, in a sense that I’m big enough to not be bought by a hospital. I am not a huge conglomerate, but we still deliver satellite practices of very customized care.”

Two years ago, he decided to expand his newfound business skills to another kind of New York enterprise: A restaurant, Saleya, on West Broadway, just around the corner from new headquarters on Warren Street. It seems a perfect fit for a friendly neighborhood guy like Dr. Cohen, except that he no longer lives in Tribeca. When the Whole Foods rolled in, Dr. Cohen says, he rolled out. Funny coming from a guy whose medical practice itself has come to be a symbol of a neighborhood’s gentrification. He moved, instead, to one of the city’s newer bohemian meccas—Gowanus. And wouldn’t you know it? Last year, Whole Foods moved in.

The Branding Doctor: How Starry Pediatrician Michel Cohen Revived His Ailing Practice