Mystery Shopping Motivates Medical Clinics to Immediate Action

Management of a chain of health centers knew they had a problem when complaints were increasing about long waits to schedule appointments, long waits for scheduled and unscheduled appointments and unfriendly, discourteous and/or impersonal staff. At the large, busy centers, in particular, significant pressure on staff to move people through quickly was leading to poor service and unhappy patients.

In order to pinpoint the specific problem areas, confirm or validate patient complaints, and identify opportunities for improving the patient experience, management decided to step beyond traditional patient satisfaction measurements and try mystery shopping. Devon Hill Associates was asked to engage mystery shoppers to provide feedback about their experiences visits to 10 of the health centers.

After discussing the organization’s scheduling process and expectations, carefully selected mystery shoppers were recruited to pose as real patients. This was a complex, confidential project that required creating fictitious identities and symptoms that would enable the mystery shoppers to schedule their appointments within a few weeks’ time. Their medical scenarios not only had to create a sense of urgency, but be believable at the same time.

The mystery shoppers made phone calls to the call center to schedule appointments and made scheduled visits to the centers. Those who were not able to schedule their appointments within the project’s time frame became walk-in patients.

As part of their reporting, the mystery shoppers logged the dates and times of their calls and visits. They completed detailed narrative accounts of their experiences, created timelines for their visits and completed detailed questionnaires that covered reception and registration, throughput, and interactions with staff and systems. With a minimum number of mystery shoppers, we were able to verify some of the “real” patients’ complaints, as well as identify additional areas for concern.

Devon Hill forwarded the narratives to executive management within 48 hours of each visit and later prepared an extensive analysis of the findings that emerged from the various forms of feedback. In our report, we described the key strengths and challenges that were identified with processes, systems and staff behavior, including:

  • High marks for the providers (physicians, PAs and NPs) for their caring, interest, attentiveness, knowledge and professionalism
  • Recognition of “standout” employees for exceptional service and caring
  • Speedy check-in
  • Instances of impersonal, discourteous and/or uncaring behavior
  • The need for “how to” information for new patients including directions, signage, parking, check-in, etc.
  • Systems and processes established for the health centers’ convenience, with too little consideration of the patients’ needs
  • Inconsistencies or deficiencies in procedures leading to distressingly long waits
  • Issues with patient privacy and confidentiality

As a result of the mystery shopping project’s findings, Devon Hill Associates made suggestions to:

  • Create a more welcoming check-in and registration process
  • Address patient privacy and confidentiality issues
  • Improve overall communication between patients and staff
  • Celebrate successes.

At the same time, we encouraged management to seek solutions from its employees individually and cooperatively within the health centers, and to identify outside experts for long-standing throughput problems.

Management responded very quickly to our report findings, but recognized that improving the patient experience would be a long-term project, encompassing changes to the organization’s culture. Nevertheless, the CEO of the organization was on board to fix the problems and set high expectations for good service. A follow-up plan was proposed by the Human Resources Director to be rolled out to the health center directors and staff. It included creating new internal communications, a “tool box” of staff development, training, mentoring and one-on-one meetings with employees.

It’s too soon to assess the impact of the mystery shopping project on the patient experience. The organization’s work is just beginning. Nevertheless, the project successfully identified specific patient satisfaction and patient experience challenges, as well as multiple opportunities for change going forward. Mystery shopping focused the organization directly on the patient experience, and moved them to plan significant action.

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Devon Hill Associates is a mystery shopping, marketing and sales training company that focuses on the healthcare and long-term care industries. We specialize in mystery shopping for hospitals, HMOs, clinics, nursing homes, assisted living and retirement communities nationwide. Devon Hill Associates is located in La Jolla, California. For information on mystery shopping and other services, call 1-858-456-7800.

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Devon Hill Associates LLC 1535 El Paso Real La Jolla, CA 92037 Tel: 1-858-456-7800 Contact: Barbara Gerber

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