Spying Patients Keep Doctors in Check

Mona Sabet may seem like a regular patient shopping for a top-notch doctor, but she's actually a health-care spy who is hired by doctors' offices to evaluate their practices.

Sabet works for a mystery patient service in San Diego started by Jodi Manfredi, a former health-care sales representative.

"You want to see how clean the office is, if people acknowledge you when you walk through the door, if they remember your name, if the office is nice, and if they seem competent," Sabet said, explaining the goals of her job.

A growing number of doctors and other health-care professionals are hiring mystery shopping firms to improve their business. Manfredi says that too often, doctors focus only on successful medical outcomes -- not patient satisfaction.

"We are allowing them to see their practice through their patients' eyes. We are their eyes and ears," Manfredi said.

Mystery patient services also stand to benefit doctors.

"When a patient is happy when they leave that practice, they feel like they were treated with kindness and professionalism and respect. They're going to refer other patients to that practice," Manfredi said.

Mystery Patients in Action

ABC News followed Sabet to an appointment with a chiropractor at the practice Paincare of San Diego. She brought along a hidden camera.

After greeting the receptionist and signing in, the issue of a consultation fee came up, to Sabet's surprise.

"I asked if there was going to be a consultation fee, and at first she says yes, and then she said no, so I was a little confused," Sabet said.

She had to shell out $60 for the consultation and then waited seven minutes to see the doctor.

During her visit with Dr. Song, Sabet assessed how well the doctor answered her questions and his level of compassion.

After the appointment, Sabet filled out a report. How did the practice do?

"There was a little confusion when I made the appointment. They were unclear on certain charges. That was probably the biggest problem. It was not the doctor. I was very happy with the doctor," Sabet said.

Though she was satisfied with Song overall, she made a disturbing observation: She didn't see him wash his hands.

Song explained.

"Actually, we wash our hands before we see the patient -- so that's not a problem," he said.

For Song and his practice, visits from a mystery patient can be a boon to business. Maximizing the quality of care for his patients is a matter of keeping a competitive edge.

"They do have a choice in where they go, so we need to make sure that we're doing what we can to make their experience a pleasant one, one that they enjoy," he said.

Doctors like Song say being spied on is a small price to pay to ensure happier patients and a successful practice.