OJT Q&A: As Secret Shopper, Pérez Dávila Studied Availability of Behavioral Health Services

Samantha Pérez Dávila makes research calls

Photo courtesy Pérez Dávila

January 19, 2024

Student Samantha Pérez Dávila (cohort '21) acted as a "secret shopper" for a 2023 RAND study, calling and supervising calls in Spanish and English to try to schedule behavioral health services.

The project's resulting paper, which she co-authored, was named one of the Top 10 Health Affairs Scholar Articles of 2023.

In this OJT Q&A, she shares her experience on the project.

What was your role on the project?

I conducted data collection and collaborated in drafting the paper. I made calls to health clinics in California as a new monolingual (Spanish speaker) patient seeking for an appointment to access medication for depression. I also helped drafting the paper, particularly in the methodology section, by describing the experiment. That allowed me to understand better how to integrate the technical aspects of the study with the policy implications. This experience was particularly enlightening, given the delicate nature of our focus on discrimination. It allowed me to navigate the intricate intersection between empirical research and the real-world implications of our findings in a nuanced and impactful manner.

What did you like best about the work you did?

I believe this work might actually have an impact on the quality of health services that the Hispanic community in California receive. I also had fun learning an innovative methodology for research, such as the secret shopper.

What was most interesting about the work you did?

I was able to experience first-hand discrimination situations that I wouldn’t otherwise. I believe experiences like this position researchers in a better place to understand the importance of the research they are conducting and offer new perspectives on how to address beneficiaries perspectives to reflect them in our studies.

With which researchers did you work most closely, and how?

I worked really close with Lori Uscher-Pines and Jessica Sousa, my OJT mentors, as well as recent alum Claudia Rodriguez (cohort '16) and research assistant Maya Rabinowitz. We had weekly meetings to check on the progress and offer support to each other during the process. Lori and Jessica included us in every step of the process, even in the publication and dissemination stages.

Did you work alongside researchers and staff with academic disciplines or backgrounds that differ from yours? What was that like?

It was an extremely enriching experience. It felt like I was learning from everyone’s experiences in a very inclusive and knowledge promoting environment.

What did you learn from the work you did?

I was able to learn more about health care systems in the US, exploring the range of mental health services available, gain insights into the experiments methodologies, and familiarize with the challenges that the Hispanic community in California face. I also learned about the importance of designing research that transfer the needs of the community to hold decision makers accountable. I am very excited about the impact that this study has had so far.

What impact the project had?

I was interviewed by a couple of journalists from the Association for Health Care Journalism who prepared articles about the importance of the paper. I believe it is also essential that, as researchers, we learn the skills to communicate in clear manner the research and the implications of our results. The research was sponsored by the California Healthcare Foundation, which also interviewed me and published an article about it.

How has your work on the project shaped your career interests?

I became more interested in studying the challenges faced by the Hispanic community in the US. As a migrant, this topic hit close home.

How did the project expand your network or access to data?

It allowed me to collaborate with researchers inside and outside RAND whose work is focused on mental health, which is a topic that intersects frequently with other topics that I work on—drug policy and violence.

What else do you think your colleagues and future students might want to know about this project and your contributions to it?

As students, we may often find ourselves disheartened by the lack of tangible impact resulting from our academic endeavors. However, engaging in projects like this one provides a unique opportunity to witness firsthand how research can genuinely influence decision-making. This experience proves to be highly motivating, especially within the demanding context of a Ph.D. journey. It serves as a powerful reminder that our efforts contribute meaningfully to the broader academic and practical spheres.

For researchers, integrating students to all stages in research is a great contribution to our formation. It allows us to familiarize with daunting processes like publications, conferences, dissemination efforts, and more, making us more engaged in the research we are performing.