How to Do (Or Not to Do) … Using the Standardized Patient Method to Measure Clinical Quality of Care in LMIC Health Facilities
Standardized patients (SPs), i.e. mystery shoppers for healthcare providers, are increasingly used as a tool to measure quality of clinical care, particularly in low- and middle-income countries where medical record abstraction is unlikely to be feasible. The SP method allows care to be observed without the provider’s knowledge, removing concerns about the Hawthorne effect, and means that providers can be directly compared against each other. However, their undercover nature means that there are methodological and ethical challenges beyond those found in normal fieldwork. We draw on a systematic review and our own experience of implementing such studies to discuss six key steps in designing and executing SP studies in healthcare facilities, which are more complex than those in retail settings. Researchers must carefully choose the symptoms or conditions the SPs will present in order to minimize potential harm to fieldworkers, reduce the risk of detection and ensure that there is a meaningful measure of clinical care. They must carefully define the types of outcomes to be documented, develop the study scripts and questionnaires, and adopt an appropriate sampling strategy. Particular attention is required to ethical considerations and to assessing detection by providers. Such studies require thorough planning, piloting and training, and a dedicated and engaged field team. With sufficient effort, SP studies can provide uniquely rich data, giving insights into how care is provided which is of great value to both researchers and policymakers.