Secret shopper technique sharpens patient focus at St. Rita's

May 15, 2011


The health care industry can learn many lessons from the shopping mall. That is the message from Walt Kinsey, vice president of patient experience at St. Rita's Medical Center in Lima, Ohio, and a 44-year career veteran of Macy's department stores. Kinsey uses mystery shoppers to evaluate the entire spectrum of services offered by the system's 3,600 employees.

"We really try to evaluate not only quality but how people were treated," said Kinsey. "There is a famous quote from Maya Angelou that I really believe — people will not always remember what you said or did, but they will remember how you made them feel. Our duty is more than getting patients well and sending them on their way. We want everyone here to feel respected and cared for."

Even Kinsey does not know the identities of the mystery shoppers. Some assignments are easy, such as checking to see if calls are answered on the second ring. Others require shoppers to follow a patient for

10 hours or more and evaluate the entire care experience. Perception Strategies, a qualitative research company based in Indianapolis, hires actors, often from local community theaters, to pose as the friend or family member of a real patient.

The shoppers approach patients in waiting rooms and ask to accompany them during their stay. Shoppers turn in detailed evaluations that Kinsey analyzes and keeps for a year. Health care workers singled out for having provided excellent care are treated to a Starbucks gift card. Those whose conduct falls short are addressed immediately.

"We treat them kindly but go after the behaviors," said Kinsey.

And Kinsey goes one step further. He uses the mystery shopper data in combination with employee satisfaction surveys to pinpoint troubled departments. He then conducts "deep-dive" audits, interviewing each employee to discover why certain departments score lower than others in customer satisfaction.

"It's always people, process or environment," said Kinsey. "Sometimes it's a single person who is not a good team player. Sometimes it's something like noise. Or it could be a process that is inhibiting them from providing a great experience — something that has always been a problem, but because it's always been done that way, it is just accepted."

The data is worthless unless management is willing to act. Kinsey is a vocal champion to change what's broken within the system.

"That's what makes Walt different," said Kevin Billingsley, cofounder of Perception Strategies. "There is no point taking the staff time unless there is going to be follow-up. Everybody has the sense that something really is going to happen. If there is an impediment, he will work to remove it."

Customer satisfaction ratings have skyrocketed since Kinsey began the "deep-dive" audits, improving 15 percent to 30 percent for some departments.

Improvements that helped move the customer satisfaction needle include a new protocol to ensure hospital patients see an employee at least once an hour and a new computerized transportation system that has eliminated long waits for patients moving throughout the hospital. St. Rita's also completed a $1 million renovation of its hospital food service operation.

"We had gotten away from the small things," said Kinsey. "Food is a universal part of life and scores kept getting lower and lower. Finally we did something to put in room service. We have new china, there are uniforms, the food is served hot and with garnish. It might cost more, but it's another way to take care of a patient."

Kinsey has no medical background and he was surprised when St. Rita's contacted him some four years ago.

"I get a message from the president, and I wondered, 'What is this about?'" said Kinsey. "My first thought was, 'Am I paid up on all my bills? Does the president call if you owe money?'"

But the similarities between health care and retail are many. Both rely on customer service for repeat business. And both demand a hands-on approach. Today, Kinsey spends little time in his office. Rather, he's meeting one-on-one with the nurses and lab techs about the minute operational details of their jobs. He acknowledges some employees don't see the connection between departmental culture and customer service and between customer service and good health, but Kinsey believes these concepts are all linked.

"It takes all of those people to save lives," said Kinsey.


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.