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Reimbursement and Practice Management

Mystery Patient Surveys

If your medical group wants to gain insight into what patients like or dislike about their experience — consider using a mystery patient to gather objective information.

After reading this article you will understand how to:

  • Create scenarios and questionnaires for mystery patients to use in documenting their interactions with your practice
  • Develop effective patient survey questions based on your practice’s customer service improvement goals.
  • Identify alternative feedback mechanisms to gather useful patient feedback.
  • Deploy staff and technology to efficiently gather patient feedback

View related pearls

Using “mystery” customers has a long-standing track record of success among retailers seeking to evaluate their business’s service quality. There’s no reason why this tactic cannot work just as well for physicians seeking new insights about what pleases — and displeases — their patients.

Mystery customers — also referred to as secret shoppers — are hired to present as patrons. Working from a list of check-offs, they covertly document and evaluate their experiences at the business. For physician practices, this feedback mechanism has gained popularity because it offers an objective analysis of the practice — from the receptionist’s telephone manners to the physician’s bedside manner.

One way to experience your practice from the patient’s perspective is to call your own telephone number anonymously. Don’t expect to hide your identity if calling from your own telephone (which the staff can likely see via caller ID), so call from a number that couldn’t be traced to you. Your staff will likely recognize your voice but at least you can judge the initial telephone encounter — the number of rings before pick-up, the quality of the automated telephone menu, and the receptionist’s manner.

Ready to dig deeper? Here’s what to do next:

Start with a mystery caller. Because patient access is a tremendous differentiator in the market, it’s important that appointment scheduling is handled well. Ask a friend or hire a consultant, to call your practice at least once a day for two weeks. Give them a scenario — their mom is soon moving to town, and looking to establish care with a physician, for example. Ask your mystery patient to document the experience as well as the availability of appointments. (See sample Mystery Patient Survey for Telephone for ideas.)

Ask friends. Request a friend or colleague for their opinion of your practice. Ask pointed questions to gather the best feedback. Know, however, that friends and colleagues may not feel comfortable offering comments with complete candor, particularly when it comes to evaluating you.

Hire an expert. Several firms specialize in helping physician practices gauge and improve patient satisfaction; they may also have experience hiring and coaching mystery patients. Armed with a consistent, proven survey template, an expert can develop a questionnaire that provides detailed and reliable feedback.

Try alternatives. If a mystery patient isn’t your style, consider these alternative feedback mechanisms:

  • Place a brief, automated post-visit survey form on a PC or tablet that can be handed to patients at check-out. To gain a sufficient sample size, keep questions concise: “Would you refer a friend or family member to us?” (Yes or No) is a popular one.
  • Assign your practice manager to seek feedback from patients waiting in the reception area for a period of time — at least two weeks. Ask your manager to sit down with at least one patient every day, inquiring about who referred them, as well as their opinion of the practice. With a commitment of just 10 minutes a day, your manager can gather genuine — and useful — feedback.
  • Follow up on all requests for transfers of charts to the same specialty in your community. If a patient asks you to send a copy of their records to a competitor, it’s likely that they are moving their care to another physician. There’s no need to follow up with patients who are transferring for financial reasons (they refuse to pay their bill, for example), but have your manager contact any other established patients requesting in-town record transfers. Even if they are leaving for insurance purposes (you’re no longer on their insurer’s panel of participating physicians, for example), this knowledge can still provide useful information.

Mystery patients can benefit the practice in many ways, offering valuable and timely feedback. The mystery telephone patient survey will not give you all the answers you need to fully assess your practice’s service quality, but it will give more credibility to anecdotal information you may hear from patients and referring physicians. Mystery patient survey reports can be combined with patient satisfaction surveys, reports produced by your telephone system, and other observations to give a clearer picture of what’s going right - or wrong - in your practice.

Mystery Patient Telephone Survey Sample Questions
(Use a 5-point scale, with 5 being the best)

  • Level of courtesy of person answering telephone
  • Level of knowledge of person answering telephone
  • Level of concern of person answering telephone

(Answer yes or no, providing details if appropriate)

  • Did the person answering the telephone give you his or her name?
  • Did the person answering the telephone give you the practice’s name?
  • Were you placed on hold?
  • If you were placed on hold, how long did you wait?
  • Was a message taken for someone to call you back?

Pearl 10/01/14

Shared Success
When seeking feedback, be prepared to share the results. Communicate to patients the improvements that have been made. One simple approach is to keep a “you talked, we listened” display in the practice. This bulletin board, poster or electronic display can show patients’ feedback — anonymously, of course — and your active responses. Not only will patients appreciate your efforts, but they may become more apt to offer their opinions about current service quality and future improvements.

Pearl 10/08/14

Consider the End
As you ponder which questions to use in a mystery patient survey, ask: What will we do with the feedback? For example, if you intend to ask patients to rate the practice on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being the best, what do you plan to do with the monthly results? What can you do with a 4.7 score on that question? Don’t proceed without a plan; otherwise, you’re just wasting everyone’s time, including yours.

Pearl 10/15/14

Focus on Time Slots
If possible, have "mystery callers" attempt to call your practice during each hour block, that is, 7:00 to 8:00 a.m., 8:00 to 9:00 a.m., etc. You may be surprised — and not always pleasantly — by what happens when people call during the lunch hour, immediately after the practice opens in the morning, or just before closing.

Pearl 10/22/14

Answer "why?" when soliciting feedback about your medical practice. Have a specific goal in mind (Are our employees courteous? What’s the average on-hold wait time for callers? Do we project a professional image?). You’ll quickly see ways to make the best use of the results. Mystery patient survey results can be particularly valuable if delivered as part of a performance improvement initiative, customer service training, or a strategic planning session.

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