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Ready Yet For Your Fake Patients?

July 21, 2008
by Mark Hagland
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As a number of mainstream media journalists are beginning to catch onto the trend, those reporters are writing stories about a recent trend that CIOs should be following carefully—the use of “fake patients” to stir quality and service assessments in healthcare.

As The Ann Arbor News reported earlier this month, Saint Joseph Mercy Health System in that market is “one of a growing number of healthcare providers turning to a method of quality control more common to the retail industry—so-called secret shoppers who act like customers so the business owner can rate its customer service.” In the purely clinical context, these people are known as “mystery patients.”

The difference between those patients who in previous iterations were used primarily to help clinicians improve their diagnostic skills and the individuals whom the Saint Joseph Mercy System folks are using is that these new people are being used primarily to help assess the speed and quality of service. For example, initial “fake patient” runs helped Saint Joseph Mercy executives determine the fact that admitting clerks at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Superior Township did better in person than over the phone in handling the mystery patients. As a result, executives there created a phone courtesy class now taken by every new clerk.

Interestingly, as the Ann Arbor News story notes, a similar program undertaken at the University of Michigan, also in the Ann Arbor area, several years ago, was discontinued after no specific problems were identified, and some staff expressed discontent over the practice.

Physicians and organized medicine have also been increasingly critical of the practice. The Ann Arbor News story quoted a colorectal surgeon who said, “I think it is a horrendously bad idea. This is a marketing thing. It’s not how you evaluate medical care.”

Actually, Doctor, consumers and purchasers are increasingly voting with their feet, with consumers shifting to hospitals and physician groups that have committed to—and achieved—better service quality, especially around wait times. I myself left one personal physician for another, after a horrendous experience with waiting and indifference (what busy modern person has three-and-a-half hours they can devote in any one day to useless sitting around?).

So whether or not your hospital or health system chooses to use “fake patients” to get a sense of what’s really going on service-wise in your organization, or whether it choose some other strategy or combination of strategies in this area, you as a CIO should be out on the front lines, championing service quality, and helping to strategize around whatever IT-based and other tools might be appropriate to help achieve and maintain higher service quality levels. You owe it to your organization to be a leader in this area.

And, in this context, you might find interesting the feature article that my colleague, Associate Editor Kate Huvane, is working on for the October issue. She’s looking at patient-service kiosks and how they fit into broader patient services strategies. Stay tuned, and stay engaged.

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