Devon Hill Associates provides healthcare mystery shopping services

In the January 2, 2014 Hospital Impact blog, Jason A. Wolf, president of the Beryl Institute suggested that finding the greatest opportunities for excellence and improvement in the patient experience comes back to a willingness to constantly ask questions, try new things and avoid being lured in by promises of “best practices” or prepackaged solutions.

I found Jason’s comments interesting when thinking about why more healthcare organizations don’t try mystery shopping to take their service and patient satisfaction to the next level. Unlike other service industries that routinely use mystery shopping reports to increase customer satisfaction and retention, many healthcare leaders are reluctant to take advantage of this powerful decision-influencing tool. It’s sometimes perceived negatively as a “gotcha” program rather than a way to make factual observations or a way to assess performance against standards.

The mystery shopping report

Mystery shopping reports are produced by individuals who know how to think, speak, and behave like “real” patients. These individuals have fictitious but believable symptoms, complaints or needs. Sometimes a doctor or two is involved in the plan. As ER patients, outpatients and inpatients, or as callers scheduling appointments and making inquiries, the mystery shoppers inconspicuously take notes about their encounters and observations, and turn these notes into a clear and insightful first-hand account of their entire experience. Depending on what the organization wants to know about its operations, the compilation of these individual accounts plus associated questionnaire responses are then turned into detailed reports that:

  • Tell stories about staff behavior, facility operations and price transparency, as seen through a patient’s eyes
  • Identify factors that enhance and detract from the patient experience, and why
  • Uncover bottlenecks and inefficiencies in processes, procedures and access
  • Point out areas where additional training and/or retraining may be needed
  • Showcase caring, kind and courteous behavior
  • And more

Providers who have used mystery shopping services will tell you that the results are certainly eye-opening.

Costs of quality

Mystery shopping carries a cost, of course. But, the price tag is an investment in transforming the patient experience and improving patient satisfaction and HCAHPS scores. In our opinion, there is hardly another research method capable of producing the amount of invaluable specific, patient-centric information contained in a mystery shop report. An individual well-written mystery shop account of a call or visit presents the patient experience in a way that is difficult to capture with statistics or other data. As such, it is more interesting, compelling and easier for staff to identify with.

Yet the benefits don’t stop there. When multiple mystery shop accounts are produced for an area, they can be combined and analyzed to give leaders and staff an understanding of some of the key drivers of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their facilities. For example, any number of issues may be uncovered that can contribute to a lower than expected satisfaction or HCAHPS score – the “right” employees in the wrong positions; unengaged employees; staff who are not as courteous, caring or responsive as the organization would like them to be. In some cases, there may be telephone or patient care processes or procedures in place that improve efficiency, but make patients feel like staff care more about their functions than about them, as human beings. This information can be compellingly revealed in the individual mystery shopper narratives and the overall mystery shopping report.

Most importantly, the information contained in the mystery shopping report often serves as the impetus for making changes to systems, processes, policies and procedures, or retraining staff in ways that lead to more positive and more consistently satisfying patient experiences — and may even reduce employee defection. The research firm Press Ganey has shown that as patient satisfaction goes up, staff turnover goes down. (Patient Satisfaction, 2nd Ed. Chicago: Health Administration Press; 2006.) When employees are trained in customer service and empowered to make decisions that satisfy their patients, they are happier in their jobs.

Contact Barbara Gerber, President of Devon Hill Associates at 858-456-7800 or complete the inquiry form on our website for more information about assessing the patient experience when calling your facility or by becoming an incognito patient.