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There’s a Federal “Mystery Shopper” in Your Waiting Room. Here’s What the HHS Wants to Know.

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer
Mystery Shopper in Medical Provider Office

Who's the Mystery Shopper

If you’re a little behind in reading your Federal Register subscription, we see that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is proposing to use “secret shoppers,” perhaps in your office. The HHS wants to sample Primary Care Physicians’ (PCPs) wait times, accessibility and availability.

In government talk, the Proposed Project is titled Assessing the Availability of Primary Care Physicians Accepting New Patients and Timeliness of Services for New Patients Using a Mystery Shopper Approach—OMB No. 0990-NEW—Assistant Secretary Planning Evaluation (ASPE). (Federal Register, April 28, 2011)

Of course "mystery shoppers" isn't a new concept for healthcare marketing, hospital administration or physician offices. Secret shoppers are often used by the provider or healthcare organization as a self-evaluation process to sample and report about the patient experience or other issues. (We’ve written about how you can use the idea. And you might be amazed at how often we can report areas for improvement with a new business dividend.)

In this instance, it's not the business owner, but the HHS that wants to shop. Given an anticipated shortfall in PCPs, and an aging population in need of primary care, the federal government proposes to take a page from the same management and medical marketing playbook.

The AMA reports that, “4,185 primary-care physicians — 465 in each of nine states that haven’t been named — will be contacted once by someone pretending to be a new patient who has private insurance and once by someone pretending to have public insurance. Patients can present with an urgent problem or be requesting a routine exam. The Federal Register says the goal is to assess the timeliness with which primary-care services could be provided, figure out why PCP services are lacking, and provide information on primary-care availability and accessibility.”

The HHS is in the process of collecting comments about its proposal. You can catch-up on your Federal Register reading and comment about the study via this linked page. What’s more, you may want to launch your own mystery shopper evaluation, and we can help with that.

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