Should doctors be scared of government mystery shoppers?

The government is going to find out about the primary care physician shortage for themselves.

They’re resorting to “mystery shoppers,” used frequently in other industries, to see what the wait times really are for a new primary care doctor. As mentioned before, come 2014, there will be over 30 million newly insured patients looking for a doctor.  This will further stress a system short of primary care resources.

Doctors, as expected, aren’t happy about these disingenuous calls from the government.

Some choice quotes from the New York Times:

Plans for the survey have riled many doctors because the secret shoppers will not identify themselves as working for the government.

“I don’t like the idea of the government snooping,” said Dr. Raymond Scalettar, an internist in Washington. “It’s a pernicious practice — Big Brother tactics, which should be opposed.”

Dr. George J. Petruncio, a family doctor in Turnersville, N.J., said: “This is not a way to build trust in government. Why should I trust someone who does not correctly identify himself?”

Dr. Stephen C. Albrecht, a family doctor in Olympia, Wash., said: “If federal officials are worried about access to care, they could help us. They don’t have to spy on us.”

Dr. Robert L. Hogue, a family physician in Brownwood, Tex., asked: “Is this a good use of tax money? Probably not. Everybody with a brain knows we do not have enough doctors.”

Studies from professional medical associations already quantify the primary care shortage.  According to the Massachusetts Medical Society, for instance, over half of primary care physicians aren’t accepting new patients.  The average wait time for an appointment in internal medicine was 48 days.

Wes Fisher, the cardiologist-blogger at Dr. Wes, is firmly against the move, likening it to government-sponsored phishing:

When information gathering trumps patient care — particularly fictitious care — we’ve got a problem. Is this a new quality standard we can expect from our new government health care initiative?

Kent Bottles comes down on the other side:

I disagree with my colleagues that a properly planned and implemented mystery shopper program is a bad idea for trying to improve health care. For far too long, we in medicine have been too arrogant to learn lessons from other industries that improve quality. I think we need all the help we can get to take better care of patients.

It’s concerning that the government has to resort to guerrilla tactics to confirm what physician-organized studies already show: yes, there’s a primary care shortage.  But if they need to see for themselves how dire the situation is, perhaps they can act more emphatically to provide more primary care resources.

If that means fielding a few calls to provide fictitious appointments, that’s an acceptable price to pay.

Kevin Pho is an internal medicine physician and on the Board of Contributors at USA Today.  He is founder and editor of, also on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn.

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