“Mystery shoppers” have long been employed by the retail and service industries. Posing as regular consumers, these people have actually been hired by an outside firm or the business itself to evaluate customer service objectively. A mystery shopper completes a transaction and reports back the results of their experience, so that improvements can be made where necessary. Could this work in health care?

In 2011, the Obama administration’s efforts to address the shortage of primary care physicians was criticized when it employed mystery shoppers to pose as patients to find out whether doctors were turning away people in government health programs. Critics claimed that “spying on” doctors would achieve nothing but mistrust.

As the health care environment continues to become more competitive and patient-driven, some medical practices are staying ahead of the curve by hiring their own medical mystery shoppers to evaluate their practices. Instead of responding to online doctor reviews and patient satisfaction surveys after the fact, doctors are proactively hiring mystery shoppers in the hopes of gaining insights that could boost patient satisfaction, ratings, and reimbursements.

How medical mystery shopping works

A search of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association members shows some 40 companies that offer health care mystery shopping services across the U.S., including mystery patient phone audits, walk-in observations, and patient visits. One such company is Wisconsin-based Baird Group, launched by a registered nurse and health care services consultant.

“Medical mystery shoppers can give a clear idea about the first impression a hospital or medical practice gives when a caller makes contact,” writes Baird Group President/CEO, Kristin Baird in a blog post on LinkedIn. And that’s just the beginning. If the patient does choose to make an appointment, “Everything about the patient encounter must instill trust that you are delivering on the promise of safe, high-quality health care. … Did [the patient] feel respected? Did she feel her privacy was guarded? Did he understand what was said? Did she feel confident that she knew what to expect next? Was he kept informed? Did the physical environment instill confidence about cleanliness and privacy?”

More often than not, it’s the little things that make the biggest difference in a patient’s perception of a practice — such as a water stain on the ceiling, a technician’s missing name tag, and the length of their wait time, as one ophthalmologist who hired a mystery shopper to evaluate his practice discovered. Fortunately, these are often the easiest things to fix.

Handling staff expectations and feedback

Before practices hire medical mystery shoppers, it’s important to consider a few things. First, to ensure that your staff doesn’t feel spied on, it’s a good idea to tell them about your plans in advance. Give them a heads-up that mystery shoppers will be showing up at some point in the near future, without saying exactly when.

Emphasize that the goal is to improve customer service and patient experience, not to catch staff doing something wrong. Explain that mystery patients also report on positive interactions. Some practices even choose to reward employees who receive positive feedback from mystery shoppers with small incentives.

The ophthalmologist mentioned above responded to his mystery shopper feedback by addressing patient wait times and spending more time with his patients during the initial, free consultation for laser eye surgery to answer the specific questions. Another option would be to take a look at your patient education materials and see if you could better address patients’ questions that way. Many practices have found that online patient education videos and resources that can be accessed by patients from home free up doctors’ time in the exam room.

Whether you choose to hire a medical mystery shopping firm or not, there is much to be gained from proactively seeking out and addressing your practice’s shortcomings and areas for improvement. You have nothing to lose, and you may gain improved patient experience, staff satisfaction, and positive ratings.

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