Objectives: To test the feasibility of professional patients as a tool for sexual health service evaluation. Professional patients are paid to use services specifically for audit or evaluation purposes without disclosing their identity as evaluators.
Methods: Professional patients visited five large sexual health departments used by 3000 clients per week in two inner London Boroughs with very high rates of sexual ill health. They recorded their experience on a structured evaluation form. Semi-structured telephone interviews were completed with seven service providers to document their experience of the programme.
Results: Recruitment and training for professional patients is described. Forty professional patients made 105 visits during two rounds of visits 9 months apart. After 47% (round 1) and 62% (round 2) of visits, the professional patients felt that they would recommend the service to a friend. The professional patients provided detailed and specific feedback on all aspects of service provision. This information was highly valued by service providers who reported few objections from staff to the visits. A small number of examples of very poor care were documented.
Conclusions: Professional patients are a useful tool for sexual health service evaluation. They provide high quality feedback because they are both 'experts' on sexual health service provision and users of sexual health services. This method of evaluation raises ethical issues about the acceptability of deception as part of the evaluation process, the right of staff to anonymity and to refuse to be visited. Professional patient programmes provide an opportunity for regular cycles of user feedback to monitor quality improvement.