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Mystery shoppers pose as regular customers in order to experience customer service from the customer point-of-view.  Used in conjunction with satisfaction surveys, mystery shoppers help paint a picture of the actual level and quality of services provided, helping businesses to continually improve the customer experience.

I’ve seen this used in the healthcare industry, and like many standards that find controversy when applied to healthcare, mystery shopping is no exception.  Some feel that mystery shopping with sham patients may interfere with the allocation of medical resources toward patients who are truly sick or suffering.  This case is most easily understood in the emergency department where seconds are critical and spending time with a mystery shopper may take away from the true needs of other patients in critical need.

Personally, I acknowledge that there are some tricky implications associated mystery shopping in healthcare, but I don’t think they warrant a rejection of the entirety of the concept.  Mystery shopping does two very important things for service providers, regardless of industry: (1) It provides a means by which to evaluate providers to ensure they are meeting the standards expected of them, and (2) knowledge that a medical practice uses mystery shoppers to evaluate service and performance helps to encourage best practices and good service in all customer interactions.

I feel that as healthcare providers we should be held to a higher standard than found in a number of non-healthcare industries, and we should expect that our providers are ethical, patient-centric and service-oriented in all circumstances.  Having worked in a number of healthcare settings myself, I know that this ideal is very much not the case and it is our responsibility as administrators and managers of healthcare organizations to place the proper systems in place to facilitate the best service possible.

This article in the San Francisco Chronicle discusses a recent potential endorsement of the concept of mystery shoppers in healthcare by the American Medical Association (AMA).

Now the ethics council of the American Medical Association is pressing the doctors group to endorse such practices. AMA delegates are expected to vote on the proposal, along with dozens of others, during their five-day meeting beginning Saturday.

Some doctors are outraged at the idea.

Dr. Richard Frederick, of the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Peoria, called it “official deceit” that could have disastrous consequences. He wrote a commentary in May’s edition of Virtual Mentor, the AMA’s online ethics journal.

“In some instances sham patients have presented to overcrowded emergency rooms with chest pain,” he wrote. “How could the hospital administration defend this exercise to someone who suffers an adverse outcome while waiting his turn behind the person who is only pretending to be sick?”

The proposal to the AMA does include restrictions that address that and other concerns. The recommendation is to have a system that: makes sure fake patients don’t interfere with treating real ones; gives doctors a heads-up that undercover patients might be visiting; and ensures that bad reviews aren’t used to punish doctors.