My college roommate was always thinking of unconventional ways to earn money. One of her more interesting revenue generating gigs (second only to taste testing fast food restaurant creations) was “secret shopping”. She was compensated somewhere along the lines of 20 bucks to visit a retail location (think Dollar Store) and pose as a customer. Once a purchase was made, she returned to our cramped, ramen-noodle scented dorm room strewn with clothes, shoes, and science text books to complete an online report about her shopping experience.

“Secret shopping” was the perfect job for a college student. My other roommates and I loved hearing the trials and tribulations of one paid to shop. Unfortunately for retailers, our standards were probably so low as mere teens that I’m not sure the market research was valuable. Nevertheless, secret shopping is not a lost art.

Businesses across the country, of all shapes and sizes, utilize secret shoppers to gauge their customer experience, healthcare establishments included. Secret shopping in healthcare takes on various forms. Some secret shoppers are paid to simply call hospitals or clinics assessing the quality of phone-based customer service. Other shoppers take it a step further feigning illness presenting as a real live patient. Companies selling secret shopping services even go so far as to offer paired patient visits where a real patient is matched with a secret shopper who poses as a friend or family member during the visit.

Secret shoppers assess everything from the appearance of the clinic or hospital to  interactions with staff and wait times. They may comment on the noise level of the hospital floor, or interactions between staff members themselves. These observations are then used by healthcare administrators to make improvements to clinic processes and the clinic or hospital environment.

Typical to the healthcare industry’s resistance to change, secret shopping has been met with resistance by medical providers. The American Medical Association hasn’t taken an official position on secret shoppers in healthcare, but has expressed distaste toward the practice. The most well-founded argument against secret shopping is that these ‘fake’ patients may receive medical services that pose potential risk such as blood draws or even CT scans. Another argument against the practice is that these ‘fake’ patients waste time and resources that would be better utilized by actual patients with real medical problems. 

The downsides to secret shopping are few, and are easily mitigated. Most of our clinics and hospitals could stand an up close investigation into customer service practices. Practices implementing the service report higher rates of patient satisfaction and improved interactions with their patients. Decreased wait times and improved patient outcomes have also been reported as a result of these services.

As healthcare providers, its helpful to get an objective look at the patient experience in our workplaces. To improve our practices, we must be willing to accept constructive criticism and rethink the way our clinics and hospitals operate.  Secret shopping provides an excellent way to get this outside perspective.

Does your workplace use secret shoppers? Do you think the service is appropriate to use in healthcare?


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