Someone's Watching

Mystery Shoppers Help Physicians Improve Customer Service   

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Medical Economics Feature - December 2006  

By  Ken Ortolon
Senior Editor

When TMA Physician Services Director Peggy Pringle and two members of her staff made appointments at Urology San Antonio, the practice's office staff assumed they were patients needing treatment for some malady. They had no idea they were being mystery shopped.

Hired by the practice administrator, Ms. Pringle and her staff not only set up appointments at each of the practice's seven San Antonio clinics, they also evaluated every aspect of the operations, including appointment setting, parking, signage, waiting room comfort, waiting times, safety compliance issues, billing, and checkout.

At the end of the examination, Urology San Antonio received a detailed report outlining customer service problem areas and things the TMA staff thought were positives for the practice.

"Not only do we tell them what's not right, we also tell them what is right, what's going well in their practice," Ms. Pringle said.

The report also included recommendations for fixing their customer service issues and provided them tools for doing so.

Mystery shopping services for physicians like those TMA Physician Services offers association members are becoming increasingly important as the rise of consumer-directed care gives patients more choice over where and how they get treatment. That may be good news for patients, but it means physicians, hospitals, and other health care professionals now have to pay more attention to customer service if they want to build and keep a strong patient base.

Physicians are joining hotels, restaurants, and other industries that have long used mystery shopping to learn how well their operations meet customers' needs and expectations.

TMA is at the forefront of this new trend. TMA Physician Services consultants provide mystery shopping services for TMA member physicians and will evaluate virtually every aspect of a medical practice. (See "TMA Physician Services Can Cure Your Practice.") 

How Can We Be Better?

Urology San Antonio contracted with TMA Physician Services earlier this year to mystery shop their practice because physicians and administrators there felt they had customer service issues, particularly with their telephone system.

"We weren't really sure if our appointment process was what it needed to be and if the phone system we had was appropriate and serving the needs of the patients," said Gloria Hernandez, administrator of the practice, which includes 22 physicians. She says they decided to see what it was like from the patient's perspective.

"It's important to be able to provide the patients great customer service," Ms. Hernandez said. "They may come to you one time, but if they have a bad experience, they're not coming back."

As it turned out, the appointment and phone systems were more adequate than they thought, Ms. Hernandez says, but they learned, among other things, there wasn't enough reading material in their waiting rooms.

Ms. Hernandez says the experience was very beneficial to Urology San Antonio. "I think it was a win-win situation," she said. "Where we were deficient, we were able to make improvements. If it was a negative, it turned into a positive. Where we were doing the right thing, it was just reinforcement. It validated that we were doing the right thing."

Ms. Pringle says TMA Physician Services gets numerous requests from physician practices to provide customer service training for their staffs. But training alone may not resolve customer service issues, she says. First, you have to identify specific problems.

Physicians often want customer service training, "but they really can't tell us what the issue is," Ms. Pringle said. "To get specifics, you need to have a mystery shopper first." 

Getting a Toehold

Jeff Hall, president of Second to None, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based mystery shopping company, says hospitals, academic health centers, individual physician practices, and other health care professionals are jumping on the mystery shopping bandwagon.

"The frequency in which we are contacted by health care professionals has just increased dramatically this year without our going out into the marketplace and necessarily marketing or advertising that we provide this service specifically to health care," said Mr. Hall, a past president of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, a national trade group. "They're reaching out to us."

Just five years ago, there was barely a market for mystery shopping in health care.

Mr. Hall says doctors and hospitals simply didn't need it during the HMO era when patients had limited choices of physicians and hospitals. That has changed. With a growing percentage of Americans enrolled in health savings accounts, flexible spending accounts, and other types of consumer-directed care plans, more patients are shopping around.

In 2003, only 0.8 percent of the nearly $600 million mystery shopper revenue came from the health care industry. In 2004, that figure more than doubled to 1.7 percent, and Mr. Hall says that sector is still a developing area within the industry.

"We have seen significant interest, especially this year, from many different types of health care providers, from hospital systems to university systems to individual physician practices," he said. "We're seeing interest from the entire spectrum."

Second to None currently mystery shops some 400 health care locations monthly, most operated by Concentra, one of the nation's largest networks of occupational medicine clinics.

In addition to consumer-directed care, Mr. Hall says the rise of what he calls "quick clinics" in supermarkets, pharmacies, and other retail outlets is forcing "traditional providers" to reevaluate how they do business.

These clinics are "disruptive to the industry" and are forcing traditional health care providers to react, Mr. Hall says. "And one of the ways is by insuring that they have high and consistent levels of customer satisfaction."

Ken Ortolon can be reached by telephone at (800) 880-1300, ext. 1392, or (512) 370-1392; by fax at (512) 370-1629; or by email at Ken Ortolon

SIDEBAR

TMA Physician Services Can Cure Your Practice

TMA Physician Services offers mystery shopping along with other consulting services to TMA member physicians. Fees for mystery shopping are based on the size of the practice, the number of locations, the number of visits made, and other factors. The service is provided at below-market rates as a benefit of membership in TMA.

With practice management experience, knowledge of best practices, and access to TMA's tools and resources, a TMA consultant can provide customized solutions specific to your practice.

For more information about TMA Physician Services, call (800) 523-8776 or (512) 370-1418, or email Physician Services.

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