Diane Peterson's clients pay her to be poked, prodded and put through the bureaucratic wringer.
Peterson, president of Houston-based consulting firm D. Peterson & Associates, is one of about five people in her firm who regularly pose as patients at hospitals to test how customer-friendly the facility is, in every meaning of the term.
She'll explain some of her tactics and findings at ACHE seminars titled "`Mystery Shopping' Your Facility: See What Customers See," to be held at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday, March 2.
With market competition between hospitals intense, many facilities and systems are looking at ways to improve customer service, enticing consumers to choose one facility over another, Peterson says.
Usually, Peterson and her team start their investigation by calling the hospital and asking for directions. First it's a test for the operators to see how friendly they are in giving directions, but it's also a test for the facility to see how well the blue "H" signs are laid out around town, so lost people can get to the hospital.
Then, one person from the firm goes into the facility and shops, just like retailers send employees into competitors' stores posing as customers to see how things are done. Peterson says she'll walk the halls and intentionally get lost, randomly stop at a desk and ask for a cup of coffee, and check out the dates on the magazines in the waiting rooms -- all to see what kind of reaction she'll get from hospital staffers.
"All these things scream quality -- or not," says Peterson, who has been doing this for about 10 years.
After roaming the halls for a day, Peterson dons a gown and becomes a patient in the emergency room. Usually, a doctor is in on the scheme, but everyone else sees Peterson as a regular patient.
"It is fascinating. You see how long it takes to get helped," Peterson says, adding that she is able to check out whether there are stains on the ceiling, chipped tiles and other neglected maintenance issues while being rolled down the hall on a gurney. Usually, Peterson will have tests run that will take her right up to, but not into, surgery.
"We cut it short right before then," she says.
Most of the recommendations Peterson's team makes fall into three categories: personnel needs, facility needs and system needs. For personnel, the recommended changes might include creating a more professional image, improving communication skills or maybe ironing wrinkled scrubs. These small issues usually mean quite a bit to patients, Peterson says.
Facility improvements can mean anything from making sure bathrooms are kept clean to cleaning up trash outside the facility.
System needs, Peterson says, are usually recommendations to speed up waiting times. If patients have to wait hours to be admitted, they won't have a good impression of the hospital and its staff, Peterson says.
The hospital uses the recommendations to write customer service standards, Peterson says, adding that employees should be recognized individually and as teams when they make a patient or a visitor a little more comfortable.
"It's amazing what you can learn about an organization. You get so sensitized" disguised as a patient, Peterson says. "Everyone in management should be wheeled around and manhandled."