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Ethics of mystery shopping and health care

The most frequent objection we hear from doctors about mystery shopping is that it isn’t ethical. Well, that might have been a valid argument until 2008, when the American Medical Association itself went back on it. In June of that year, the AMA’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs endorsed mystery shoppers as a way for physicians to improve patient care. Here’s what they said: “Physicians have an ethical responsibility to engage in activities that contribute to continual improvements in patient care. One method for promoting such quality improvement is through the use of secret shopper ‘patients’ who have been appropriately trained to provide feedback about physician performance in the clinical setting.”

Essentially, if all information remains confidential in accordance with HIPAA and the shoppers don’t interfere with actual patients in emergency medical situations, using mystery shoppers is completely ethical and, in fact, recommended. So it’s time to get real, doctors.

A trip to the doctor’s office can be very stressful for patients, stemming from everything from the cost of care to missing work for an appointment, to the actual medical diagnoses they might receive. Providing good customer service and doing everything in your power to ensure a smooth visit will ease their stress as much as possible and keep them coming back to your practice.

Mystery shops can measure any number of things, such as how long shoppers are on hold to make an appointment, how friendly the receptionist is on the telephone and how prepared they are as patients when they walk in the doors. How are they treated in the waiting room? Is the paperwork process simple enough? Have they been informed about co-payments?

Once behind the waiting-room door, shoppers can comment on the professionalism and courtesy of the nurses, how long they have to wait for the doctor to arrive…they could even comment on how the gown feels or the temperature of the exam room. And, of course, they’ll be able to comment on the doctors’ bedside manner, too.

In practices that are less primary-care and more voluntary services, shoppers may also be able to comment on whether you’re hard selling additional choice-based services, pressuring them unnecessarily or denying them proper care because they aren’t interested in those extras.

Doctors, you need to realize that you’re not only providing an important service, but you’re also running a business that serves patients. Mystery shopping could be an important key to keeping those patients coming to your practice.