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Keywords:

  • research ethics;
  • simulated patient studies;
  • audit methodology;
  • deceptive design;
  • exceptions to consent;
  • access to care;
  • public health;
  • health services

Context: In connection with health care reform, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services commissioned a “mystery shopper,” or simulated patient study, to measure access to primary care. But the study was shelved because of public controversy over “government spying” on doctors. Opponents of the study also raised ethical concerns about the use of deception with human subjects without soliciting their informed consent.

Methods: We undertook an ethical analysis of the use of simulated patient techniques in health services research, with a particular focus on research measuring access to care. Using a case study, we explored relevant methodological considerations and ethical principles relating to deceptive research without informed consent, as well as U.S. federal regulations permitting exceptions to consent.

Findings: Several relevant considerations both favor and oppose soliciting consent for simulated patient studies. Making research participation conditional on informed consent protects the autonomy of research subjects and shields them from unreasonable exposure to research risks. However, scientific validity is also an important ethical principle of human subjects research, as the net risks to subjects must be justified by the value to society of the knowledge to be gained. The use of simulated patients to monitor access is a naturalistic and scientifically sound experimental design that can answer important policy-relevant questions, with minimal risks to human subjects. As interaction between researchers and subjects increases, however, so does the need for consent.

Conclusions: As long as adequate protections of confidentiality of research data are in place, minimally intrusive simulated patient research that gathers policy-relevant data on the health system without the consent of individuals working in that system can be ethically justified when the risks and burdens to research subjects are minimal and the research has the potential to generate socially valuable knowledge.