Feds' idea to use "secret shoppers" angers doctors

WASHINGTON, D.C.; June 27, 2011

Retailers and restaurants have used them for years.

Soon, "mystery shoppers" may come to medicine. And doctors are outraged.

The Department of Health and Human Services proposes using them to figure out why so many new patients are having problems obtaining a primary care physician.

The plan is to have more than 4,000 mystery shoppers contact 465 physician's offices in 9 states "in order to accurately gauge availability of Primary Care Physicians (PCPs) accepting new patients, assess the timeliness of services from PCPs, and gain insight into the precise reasons that PCP availability is lacking."

Two recent studies done at the University of Pennsylvania using secret shoppers showed major disparities between access for children with private and public insurance (Medicaid).

Kids on public insurance were denied appointments with specialists two-thirds of the time, compared to just 11 per cent of the time for those on private insurance.

Orthopedic doctors were the most likely to deny access, even when told the child had a broken bone.

Dr. Karin Rhodes, an emergency department doctor at Penn, said of her study, "This study shows a failure to care for our most vulnerable children."

Another study out earlier this month showed that newly diagnosed cancer patiens often have a hard time getting an appointment with an oncologist.

Even callers with health insurance had difficulty, with just 22 per cent of them obtaining a slot.

And those patients who DID get appointments often had to make multiple calls to complete the process. And in a quarter of the cases, "patients" failed ot reach staff, even after 3 calls.

The "mystery shopper" proposal has outraged doctors, who consider it "spying" on their business.

The past president of the American Medical Association says the government should be helping get more primary care doctors, rather than "using mystery shoppers to tell us what we already know."

The government has used the technique before to improve service. In 2004, mystery shoppers were used to study service on the Medicare 1-800-MEDICARE help line.

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