Many companies turn to “mystery shoppers” to improve customer service, but should they be used in health care?
An increasing number of hospitals are hiring people to fake symptoms and go to doctors’ offices or the emergency department to assess the friendliness of the administrative staff or the interpersonal skills of the physician. In Maryland, for instance, federal money is even being used to pay mystery shoppers to secretly check up on whether health professionals wash their hands.
Supporters say improvements have resulted from these observations—like making patient callback procedures more efficient, ensuring patient privacy, and instituting a more professional dress code for doctors. After all, if a physician’s practice isn’t customer-friendly, it could lose patient business.
But some argue that mystery shopping is devious and see it as closer to spying. And what if, for instance, a sham patient presented to the ER faking chest pain, delaying the care of a real patient who was waiting his turn?
Furthermore, unwitting doctors sometimes order tests for these undercover patients, like CT scans and MRIs. Not only does this drive up costs, but can expose these fake patients to real complications.
Mystery shopping can expose easily correctable administrative problems and potentially improve the patient experience. But if hospitals want to observe their doctors, it’s best to inform the medical staff in advance that the patient they’re evaluating may or may not be real.
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