Secret Shoppers in Doctors’ Offices: Placebo Medicine for Physicians

October 3, 2011
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Physicians are still debating whether prescribing placebos is ethical. Dissenters argue that this is dishonest and would erode trust between patients and their physicians. If the practice were to gain acceptance, then physicians’ credibility would be diminished. Patients would wonder whether the medicines their doctors are recommending are evidenced-based or fraudulent.

Physicians are still debating whether prescribing placebos is ethical. Dissenters argue that this is dishonest and would erode trust between patients and their physicians. If the practice were to gain acceptance, then physicians’ credibility would be diminished. Patients would wonder whether the medicines their doctors are recommending are evidenced-based or fraudulent.

Patients can now push their own snake oil right back onto their physicians. I learned that the ‘secret shopper’ mechanism for quality assessment has been introduced into the medical profession. I first read about this in the March/April 2010 issue of the Journal of Medical Practice Management, a periodical that I suspect is not widely read by physicians.

Folks are hired as pretend patients and are dispatched to doctors’ offices and hospitals to document their findings. Their mission is to assess office staff, appointment issues and the waiting room experience. I wonder if soon they will add encore performances and will subject themselves to Pap smears and rectal examinations to assess doctors’ clinic skills and techniques directly.

Surprisingly, the American Medical Association’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs endorsed the practice, although many physicians objected.

I agree that these pseudopatients could improve office quality by highlighting flaws that have not been recognized or remedied. Yet, I cannot support the stealth tactics of this quality control method. On its face, it is dishonest. It also costs medical practices and institutions time and money attending to people who are masquerading as actual patients. If the secret shopper strategy did gain traction in medical quality assessment, could it be used as an investigative tool by malpractice attorneys? Finally, the concept is wholly unprofessional using a technique that is generally used in large big box retail establishments and restaurants. It is demeaning that physicians are already being evaluated on Angie’s List and the Zagat survey, as if we are automobiles or toaster ovens.

The federal government has no indicated that it will initiate its own secret shopper program to gauge how difficult it is for patients to gain access into primary care physicians’ offices.  Big Goverment becomes Big Brother.  Hours after this stealth plan was boldy announced, it was rescinded in a Big Retreat.

Let’s make a deal.  Don’t make an appointment to see me unless you truly are seeking medical care. In return, I’ll never prescribe you a sugar pill. This will strengthen the trust between us, the foundation of a successful doctor-patient relationship.

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