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Exclusive: PCTs recruit undercover patient spies to check up on surgeries

By Steve Nowottny

PCTs are recruiting an army of patient spies to go undercover into GP surgeries, Pulse can reveal.

Volunteers are being asked to rate practices on everything from opening hours and cleanliness to courtesy and the patient environment, with the results set to be passed back to PCT bosses and in some cases QOF evaluation teams.

At least 11 of 33 PCTs surveyed by Pulse said they had plans to use so-called mystery shoppers to assess practice performance – with some already doing so.

Undercover patients are already used to assess other aspects of primary care, including sexual health services, but PCTs now hope to use them in general practice.

NHS bosses claim the tactic will provide information other assessments, such as the GP Patient Survey cannot, because GPs will be unaware they are being spied on.

But GPs reacted furiously to the plans, claiming they were a deceitful waste of NHS resources.

GPC negotiator Dr Beth McCarron-Nash said: ‘The views of patients are very important, but the idea of patients being sent undercover into practices about which they may know little - and that this could influence a PCT's assessment - I cannot condone.'

But PCTs were enthusiastic about the possibilities provided by surgery snoopers. Heart of Birmingham PCT said it had already used them to assess premises of bidders for GP surgeries and now planned their use across all practices.

In Sheffield, PCT bosses have even been giving undercover patients bogus GP referrals so they can assess the quality of a GP exercise referral scheme.

The programme is expected to be extended to practices early next year.

Jane Fenelon, Patient and Public Involvement manager at the PCT, said mystery shopper patients would be expected to check practices' consent or complaints procedure, or quiz staff on where they could obtain the latest patient survey results.

‘I would hope any data we had would then be fed into QOF evaluation teams. It gives us a chance to check. With a survey there's inherent problems – do people feel capable of saying and are they worried about what will happen?'

But Birmingham LMC secretary Dr Robert Morley described the idea as ‘deceitful': ‘This is quite typical of the lack of trust and utter contempt with which the PCT appears to treat many of its GP contractors.'

Dr Renu Hans, a GP in Islington, which also plans to introduce mystery shoppers, said: ‘It's a waste of time and space.'

PCTs employing surgery spies

Heart of Birmingham – Has previously used mystery shoppers to support procurement processes by checking existing premises of shortlisted bidders. Now plans to use them more widely to assess GPs on access, respect and dignity, privacy and cleanliness

Sheffield – Already uses mystery shoppers for sexual health services and a GP exercise referral scheme. Plans to check practices' performance against some QOF indicators from next year.

Luton – Uses ‘mystery shopping techniques' to assess GP services, most recently checking accessibility.

Milton Keynes – Plans to introduce mystery shoppers in the future although ‘no clear framework about what they will be assessing has yet been set'.

Redbridge – Has previously used mystery shoppers ‘on a limited basis' in GP surgeries.

Dr Beth McCarron Nash: 'cannot condone' PCT use of undercover patients Dr Beth McCarron Nash: 'cannot condone' PCT use of undercover patients

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