Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services scrapped plans to mystery shop thousands of primary care practices in an effort to assess access. I must admit, I was disappointed, but not surprised that physicians pushed back with such vehemence. There was an outcry that it was “Big Brother” watching. But the truth is mystery shopping is becoming much more prevalent throughout the healthcare industry.
Healthcare organizations across the country are making use of mystery shopping phone calls to assess access, as well as a number of other criteria that influence patients’ decisions. And what those organizations are learning is often surprising.
Some of the access problems that are unveiled during mystery shopping studies have little to do with actual capacity and much to do with how the staff is trained in scheduling and fielding questions. For instance, we were engaged to do mystery shopping phone calls to an orthopedic clinic with two new providers who were struggling to build their caseloads. When callers would ask for an appointment with one of the more established physicians, they were told that physician’s practice was closed. End of discussion. The staff responded only to the request at hand, rather than offering the services of another highly qualified physician as an alternative who could see them quickly.
My personal experience with physicians and mystery shopping is that, when presented with the data, many physicians are grateful to find solutions to otherwise vague patient satisfaction issues. In fact, in many situations, physicians are glad to learn what they are doing well. Mystery shopping isn’t a “gotcha!” exercise; it’s a chance to hold up the mirror and address real issues with real solutions. For those providers who kick and scream at the prospect of having the patient experience documented through mystery shopping, let me quote Jack Nicholson’s famous line from A Few Good Men: “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”