NYT: Undercover Patients to Test Doctors for Government Survey

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“Everybody with a brain knows we do not have enough doctors,” Dr. Robert L. Hogue, a family physician in Brownwood, Texas, told the New York Times Monday morning in criticizing a new plan by the Obama administration to hire “mystery shoppers” to pose as patients and call primary-care doctors offices across the country to gauge patient access to care.

Many family doctors interviewed by the Times’ Robert Pear expressed dismay over the $347,370 initiative. The government says the survey will shed light on the public health problem of primary care doctor shortages, but many practicing physicians say snooping and spying are not effective ways to help improve heath-care access for those who need it most.

Pear reports that in many states doctors refuse to accept low-income patients with Medicaid because the government-funded program pays so little — a problem that threatens to get worse in 2014, when the new health law will expand Medicaid eligibility. So the Obama administration wants to know how doctors handle patient calls depending on whether the callers have private or public insurance.

Pear reports:

In the mystery shopper survey, administration officials said, a federal contractor will call the offices of 4,185 doctors — 465 in each of nine states: Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. The doctors will include pediatricians and obstetrician-gynecologists.

The calls are to begin in a few months, with preliminary results from the survey expected next spring. Each office will be called at least twice — by a person who supposedly has private insurance and by someone who supposedly has public insurance. …

Eleven percent of the doctors will be called a third time. The callers will identify themselves as calling “on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.” They will ask whether the doctors accept private insurance, Medicaid or Medicare, and whether they take “self-pay patients.” The study will note any discrepancies between those answers and the ones given to mystery shoppers.

An anonymous federal health official told the Times that any identifying data from the survey would be kept strictly confidential, and that results would be offered only in aggregate.

What do you think: are undercover patient calls a good idea?

For more, read the full New York Times story here.

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