Diane Peterson, winner of an American College of Healthcare Executives 2007 Gold Medal Award, has seen a lot of hospitals. She often tours them from a gurney or a wheelchair.
Peterson, 57, a healthcare consultant and president and founder of D. Peterson & Associates, says she pioneered the “mystery patient” method. Now she and her associates go undercover at hospitals all over the country, reporting to hospital executives on how they were treated. It’s one of the most effective ways to gauge and improve customer service, Peterson says, and it all started with a comment by her secretary about mystery shoppers who test retail stores. “It was a great idea,” she says. “Nobody had done it as inpatients before.”
Peterson says finding customer service standouts in unlikely places is one of the rewarding aspects of her job. Once she was faking a heart problem in a small Alabama hospital. The young woman pushing the gurney patted her on the shoulder and assured her that the hospital had great doctors and that she would be OK.
“This young African-American woman, probably among the lowest-paid workers at the hospital, at the end of her shift came to visit me—to say, ‘I know you’re from out of town and you’re not going to have any visitors, and I wanted to come visit and tell you everything’s going to be just fine.’ ” Peterson suggested to the hospital’s CEO that the woman should be recognized for her dedication.
Peterson started her career at a genetics research laboratory in Pittsburgh after graduating with a degree in biology and chemistry. When her supervisor at the laboratory became a department head, Peterson began to do some administrative work for him, in addition to her human genetics research for her graduate degree. Peterson ended up abandoning her graduate studies in genetics.
“I realized, my heavens, I enjoyed the administrative work more than the lab.”
She found her niche by blending business and healthcare, and discovered she had a natural knack for marketing. After a particularly unsatisfying position in marketing at an academic hospital led her to a lengthy job search, she realized she didn’t want others to have power over her career. That’s when she decided to start her consulting firm in 1987. Peterson is married to Larry Mathis, who had been a longtime CEO at Methodist Health Care System in Houston, and was himself awarded a Gold Medal from the ACHE in 2004. After his retirement from Methodist he became a consultant for his wife’s firm.
Peterson says observing problems at hospitals, suggesting solutions and returning to the same facility to see remarkable improvements has been rewarding.
Since September 2006, Peterson has been observing customer service in a more personal way. Peterson was diagnosed with uterine cancer, but her treatment so far has been successful.
“Boy, I can tell you, it’s more fun to be a mystery patient than a real patient, but I write detailed letters to the CEO of the hospital just to tell him about the experience I’m having in his organization,” she says.