"Mystery Shopping" for Supportive Care

September 7, 2016
By: Sarah Avery , Duke Health News

Using a “mystery shopper” approach, researchers at Duke Cancer Institute anonymously called most of the nation’s comprehensive cancer centers to ask whether palliative care was available, and found barriers to accurate information nearly 40 percent of the time.

Reporting their findings during the press program at the 2016 Palliative Care in Oncology Symposium, the researchers said front-line misinformation can impede access to supportive services that patients overwhelmingly seek out.

“We know that patients and caregivers make decisions based on the availability of supportive care services, and that these services make a difference both in how patients feel and how well they do,” said lead author Arif Kamal, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Duke. “It’s important that patients know about and have access to these services at every level.”

Palliative care is not end-of-life care, although it can be a component of hospice. Instead, it focuses on providing necessary medications and services to ease the symptoms and stress of a serious illness.

Kamal and colleagues, including lead author Kathryn Hutchins, sought to determine how well palliative care was presented to potential patients seeking care at comprehensive cancer centers, which are designated by the National Cancer Institute for their scientific and clinical leadership.

All comprehensive cancer centers report having consultative palliative care services, but in repeated calls to each of 40 centers, a “mystery shopper,” posing as a liver cancer patient, was unable to receive complete information about supportive services 38 percent of the time.

In about 10 percent of calls, the potential patient was unable to confirm that palliative care was offered.

“Palliative care and pain clinics are among the top three things people look for when they seek cancer care,” Hutchins said. “The services exist – we just need to give patients and their caregivers the right information and improve access to them.”