In the retail industry, "mystery shoppers" have long been used to evaluate and improve customer service. In today's competitive health care environment, more facilities and private practices are relying on "mystery patients" to help improve patient care.
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Devon Hill Associates in La Jolla, Calif., provides mystery patient services to hospitals and long-term-care facilities. Founder Barbara Gerber, a former hospital administrator, says her company's mystery patients pursue care up until an invasive procedure is recommended and report on both positive and negative aspects of the experience. Most of what they're looking for relates to communication, such as whether providers identify themselves and inform patients about their roles. "There are a lot of good things we find and report," says Gerber. "Then the nurses and other staff get extra recognition that they wouldn't otherwise receive."
Based in Las Vegas, Examine Your Practice sends mystery patients to offices of fee-for-service providers, including plastic surgeons and ophthalmologists. Founder Jodi Manfredi says her clients may want to measure patient satisfaction or learn why patients are leaving their practice. Each client receives nine mystery visits each year. She analyzes the findings from the visits and recommends improvements. Afterward, mystery patients return to evaluate the practice's progress.
Gerber and Manfredi say that their services can give facilities a competitive edge. Many patients shop around, and they tend to choose facilities that offer superior customer service as well as good clinical care.